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Catalog kick-starter

CHERYL TEVIS 03/12/2014 @ 10:09am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Once upon a time, shopping was simply expected to be a chore. Now that it’s a recreational pastime, Americans want a convenient, seamless experience. Recently, Sears announced that its store in the heart of Chicago’s Loop on State Street will close its doors in April. In a company blog post, the closing was linked to the growth of online shopping. Sears still has three stores in Chicago, but closing its flagship store seems to signal the end of a brick-and-mortar era.

The store closure led me to reflect on how the history of Sears, which began as a catalog company, paralleled the growth of farms and rural America. It’s obvious that Amazon.com owes a big debt of thanks to Sears.

Richard Sears, a Minnesota railway agent, and his partner, Alvah Roebuck, began their business in 1881 with a mail-order catalog of watches and jewelry. The time was right. The Homestead Act of 1864, America’s westward expansion, the growth of the railroads, and the inception of rural free delivery (RFD) later in 1896 made distribution of a catalog cost-effective.

The Sears Roebuck catalog became a lifeline of commerce for farmers, their families, and small-town residents. In fact, it was commonly referred to as The Farmer’s Bible or The Wish Book. Sears Roebuck paved the way for Amazon.com by showing that shopping by mail – virtual commerce – was reliable and safe. Catalog shopping was cheaper than rural general stores because it cut out the cost of the middleman. Sound familiar?

By 1897, the Sears Roebuck catalog featured 700 pages, advertising almost everything needed to fill a house, as well as tools and hardware. By 1908, it offered the house itself. Home blueprints, hardware, and precut lumber for Sears Modern Homes were shipped via railcar to more than 70,000 customers between 1908 and 1940.

Rural doctors ordered homeopathic and conventional patent medicines from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Eyeglasses became available in 1895.

The Sears Roebuck catalog remained a vital retail outlet well after the turn of the century. Farmers and their spouses found useful appliances and equipment within the pages of the 1927 catalog featured on this page. You could order sewing machines and yard goods, Haviland china, musical instruments, and the latest styles and fashions.

Even after brick-and-mortar Sears stores were common, farmers were prime customers. My father-in-law, Earl Lingren, returned to farm after World War II. My husband, Stan, says his dad told a story of using his veterans’ disability checks to buy a David Bradley wagon from the Sears store in Boone, Iowa. (David Bradley farm implements and equipment were sold exclusively by Sears.)

Earl’s wagon probably was ordered through the catalog and delivered to the store for around $300. Earl said he paid $17 per month for several months.

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