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A look through a 1909 Sears and Roebuck catalog inspires research

Some may think I’m too preoccupied with the past, but I just like to imagine how folks lived in years gone by. I know my own past and how it was to grow up in the ‘40s, ’50s, and ‘60s in Johnson County, Tennessee and I’ve written quite a bit about those times.
I decided this week to select a year and try to write about that particular year. I selected the year 1909 mainly because it was one of the first books I found in my library dealing with 1909. It was the 1909 Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalog. Of course it was not an original, but a copy.
My first inclination was to take a look at the prices in that catalog that year, but I wanted to know a little more about the events that occurred during the year I had chosen. Consequently, I started to look up some of the most important events that happened in 1909. I found that on January 17, British explorer Ernest Shackleton found the magnetic South Pole. On February 22, the Great White Fleet — the first US fleet to circle the globe — came back to port in Virginia. The fleet was sent by then President Theodore Roosevelt. It consisted of sixteen battleships and 14,000 sailors. The Panama Canal wasn’t open yet so the fleet went down the eastern coasts of North and South America, then up the Pacific coast of South America, visiting New Zealand, Australia, Manila, Yokohama, Ceylon, Suez and several Mediterranean ports before returning.

The first university school of nursing was established at the University of Minnesota on March 1. On April 6th Americans Robert Peary and Mathew Henson reached the North Pole. Jockey Vincent Powers on Wintergreen won the 35th Kentucky Derby.
On June 9th Alice Huyler Ramsey, a 22-year-old mother and housewife from Hackensack, New Jersey became the first woman to drive across the United States. She drove a Maxwell automobile the 3,800 miles from New York to San Francisco. On June 30 the Wright Brothers delivered the first military plane to the Army.
I found that none of the following had been invented yet: Band Aids, zippers, shopping carts, ballpoint pens, sunglasses, penicillin, milk cartons and more.
Life expectancy was only 47. An accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year and a dentist about $2500 per year. The average worker earned between $200 and $400 per year. Wages were low but so were the costs of products it would buy. Sugar was only four cents per pound. Eggs were only 14 cents per dozen.

As I read the pages of the 1909 catalog reproduction, I was struck by the almost incredible prices. Just to name a few, boy’s pocket watches were priced $2.06 and watches for adults were priced as low as $3.15. Can you believe only $24.95 for an organ? How about a violin set for $2.95. Also included were a bow, a set of strings, a case, an instruction book etc. On one page was a Mississippi Washing Machine. Guess what it was priced at — $5.75. You could buy a good steel range (cook stove) for around $24.95.

Anyway, as I was preparing this column it helped me to know a little more about the year 1909. It was an interesting year, but I wouldn’t want to have lived during that time.