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History Matters: Mail-order Catalogues
8/6/2012

For our ancestors living in rural America—where half the US population resided as late as 1920—mail-order catalogs

served “not only as a marketing tool, but also as school readers, almanacs, symbols of abundance and progress, and
objects of fantasy and desire,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago (a city that was home to both Montgomery
Ward and Sears Roebuck. Read about how mail-order catalogues might have shaped your ancestors' lives.
For our ancestors living in rural America—where half the US population resided as late as 1920—mail-order catalogs served “not only as a marketing tool, but also as school readers, almanacs, symbols of abundance and progress, and objects of fantasy and desire,” according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago (a city that was home to both Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck). Less grandly, mail-order catalogs also served our forebears as toilet paper. The introduction of coated stock for color pictures in the 1897 Sears catalog was a blow to outhouses everywhere.
 
The idea of shopping through the mail dates at least to 1498, when Venetian bookseller Aldus Manutius compiled a catalog of texts for sale. English gardener William Lucas sold seeds and nursery items through catalogs in 1667.  Long Island grower William Frinch did the same in the American Colonies in 1771. Benjamin Franklin was a pioneer in mail order, as in almost everything else, selling “near 600 volumes in most faculties and sciences” by catalog in 1744. Franklin is credited with the first promise of satisfaction guaranteed, writing: “Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present.”
 
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