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The days of catalog merchandising

I’m sure many of us who were born in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s and perhaps ‘50s remember the days of the big catalog merchandizing companies. Making my debut on the earth in 1938, I remember a number of differences between that era and now.
One of the things I remember was the plethora of catalogs that were available then. We received in the mail catalogs from Sears-Roebuck and Co., Montgomery Ward, J. C. Penney and others. And they were free. You can still get the big catalogs but they’re not free and I don’t think the big ones come in the mail now. Now there are a whole bunch of catalogs today but those are usually small, specialty catalogs and not the giant catalogs of yesteryear.
If it wasn’t in the catalog you didn’t need it. I was always happy to receive our catalog and look through it and dream of having some of the items that were included in it. I have already written a column of two about the Sears houses. There was a period of time when Sears sold houses. Every piece of lumber, every gallon of paint, pound of nails, pound of screws, shingle of roofing, were sent to the house site marked as to its position in the house. Perhaps with the help of a neighbor or two, the house could be put together in a few days. There are still a few of those houses around even today.
But aside from that, those old catalogs had in their pages just about anything you’d want for home or farm. There was a time when Sears sold an automobile. I believe it was the Allstate. If I remember right it was a very small car. It would probably get good gas millage today. If anyone ever owned an Allstate, please let me know and tell me something about it.
The catalogs were a great service to the farm families in the past for it was not as easy to get around as it is now. Before the invention of 4-wheel-drive, when a big snow came everyone on the farm was pretty much snowed in for a while. But the mailman nearly always made it through the snow to deliver his letters and packages. It was nice to sit by a roaring fire and peruse the catalog.
While looking through my books the other day I found a copy of the 1900 fall edition of the Sears, Roebuck Catalog. Printed on the front cover was the company’s slogan: “Cheapest Supply House on Earth.” The company also boasted on the front cover of the catalog; “Over One Million Dollars in Capital and Surplus.”
Inside the catalog the prices are amazing to those of us in this era who fine high prices in about everything. There were violins priced at $3.85. Other musical instruments included an organ priced at $24.95 and a banjo priced at $5.75. I know it sounds too good to be true, but remember money was harder to get in the 1900s. A dollar was worth much more than it is today.