One of the first harbingers of Christmas are the catalogs. Beginning in the latter part of September peaking in early December, there is a flood of catalogs in most people’s mail. A couple of months after the fire I realized we were not getting any catalogs. I came up with several hypotheses but none made sense.
After the fire, the Post Office gave us boxes that matched our old home addresses so we did not have to change addresses. We just pick the mail up from the post office rather than our rural route mailbox. My spouse, the king of errands, was getting the mail from the post office for us. I asked him about the catalogs and he replied that he had been tossing all of them into the recycle box before leaving the post office.
I was shocked. It never occurred to me he would do that. Even though I jest about catalogs (see our post Catalogs from October 15) I look forward to them for a little material culture education and excitement. I love catalogs. When I was a child I looked forward with true anticipation, and far too much focus for a child, to the arrival of the Christmas “Wish Book” from Montgomery Ward. Some years after I had learned to dream over the Wish Book, JCPenny came out with their own large annual Christmas catalog. My mom would deliver them to to me before anyone else, even she, looked at them. I would pour over each page making up a little dream of having each item. We did not have much money so the items had to be dreams but they were as real to me as the big book they were listed in. They existed.
Back then there were not too many catalogs. The three big mail order groups, JCPenny, Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward ruled the mail order market.
As I harkened back to my childhood remembering catalogs a half century ago, I wondered where they came from and how catalogs had become such a huge player in the U.S. economy.
Montgomery Ward, based in Chicago, was the original mail-order business. Their first mail order catalog went out in 1872. Their catalog would have gone out in 1871 but their inventory was lost in the Great Chicago Fire. Their business plan was to sell to rural farmers for less than local merchants thereby securing a strong rural market. Things did not go well until Montgomery in 1872 was named the purchasing agent of the Illinois Grange. As their mail order business grew their most popular items were sewing machines.Their spring catalog in 1874 was 32 pages and by 1883 had grown to 240 pages with over 10,000 items. The catalog was known as “The Wish Book.” Montgomery Ward was one of the first national companies to establish a satisfaction guarantee. They also established a quality grading system of good, better and best.
Sears, also in Chicago, was started in 1886 when Sears began to sell watches to supplement his income as a train station manager. In 1887 he hired the watch maker Roebuck and they sent out their first catalog in 1888. The catalog featured only watches and jewelry. The first “Big Book” was sent out in 1896. Sears prospered in the 1890s when a large disparity between farm prices and retail prices began to emerge. Sears focused on purchasing large quantities directly from the producer. They gained popularity with farmers because they eliminated the middle man.
Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck both began and built their business in in mail order. JC Penny launched their mail order program in 1963 building out from their successful retail stores. JCPenny was started in 1902 as a small retail store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. One of the hallmarks of Penny’s was their “Golden Rule” philosophy. In fact, the original stores bore that name, and in 1913 were incorporated in Salt Lake City as the JC Penny company. JCPenny was an early adopter of technology launching in 1964 what became jcpenny.com.
My mom was a loyal Penny shopper. Each Christmas we got the Montgomery Ward catalog but no catalog orders for us. I had never been to a Montgomery Ward store. I imaged they were huge and fancy beyond my means. There in Chicago. That was exotic as New York. So, when we started getting the JCPenny catalog in the basement of the JCPenny store, I could see the connection between stores and catalogs right off. The store had squeaky, dusty wooden floors with miles and miles of things my mother wanted me to wear, the same miles of tings I did not want to wear. The catalog was modern and new and had swimming pools in it.
So from the big Montgomery Ward Wish Book to today’s modern catalogs where you can buy mega expensive or inexpensive clothes, kit houses, fair trade foods and give as honor gifts to friends a contribution to funding micro loans for women in developing, the world coming to your door wrapped in paper that is graded good, better and best and is an American Tradition.
My poor long-suffering spouse now hauls all of the catalogs home each day. We look at them over lunch an they are usually in the recycle bin by dinner. It is interesting that flipping those pages makes us feel just a little bit more connected to our old lives when we looked at the catalogs each day. We don’t buy much these days. I think we are warn out shopping for new things to repopulate our house. We are also being careful with money now. Still, the catalogs, like the Wish Book of my past, help fuel the imagination and bring a bright shinny thought of what might have been. I like that catalogs can do that. They are the fairy tale stories of today. They teach us that we cannot have everything we want and they teach us that we should always dream.