IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, the great American railroad network combined with other forces to draw the remote farmer and his family into the new consumption communities. The new American institutions which accomplished this were the mail-order houses. The expression “mail order,” applied to retail merchandisers and catalogues, was an Americanism that had come into general use by the beginning of the twentieth century. The consumption communities of Montgomery Ward or Sears buyers, which had not even existed at the end of the Civil War, a bare half-century later numbered millions. By the mid-twentieth century, Sears, Roebuck and Company would be the nation’s largest retailer of general merchandise. This was a movement from the general store, with its gathering of a half-dozen local pundits around the cracker barrel, to the mailorder firm, with its dispersed customer-millions hungering through the half-thousand pages of vivid advertising copy, or waiting at their mailboxes: customer-millions who would never see one another but who still somehow leaned on one another. This was a vivid allegory of how America moved from cluster communities of transients and upstarts, of individuals calling one another by their first names, to a nation of everywhere communities of consumers and national-brand buyers who would never meet.
THE AMERICAN FARMER especially needed some kind of community because certain facts of American life had tended to keep him from living close to his neighbor. The Homestead Act of 1862 required a settler to live on his claim for five years in order to perfect his title. This gave a character to American farm life very different from that of the Old World peasant, who lived in a village and then went out every day to the plots that he cultivated. Even if every homesteader had had no more than a quarter-section (160 acres), and every quarter-section was actually homesteaded, under the rigid rectangular system of surveying public lands for sale, the average distance between farmhouses would still be at least a half-mile. But many settlers had larger tracts, some sections were reserved for schools, and there were large unsettled areas that had been abandoned by Eastern speculators—all of which separated a homesteading farmer from his neighbors.
The isolation varied from place to place, with the climate and the terrain. The lonely prairies of the great Northwest, in the Dakotas or Nebraska, taxed the endurance of sociable men and women. “The reason is not far to seek,” E.V. Smalley, the observant editor of the Northwest Illustrated Monthly Magazine, who knew that land personally, explained in 1893. “These people came from cheery little farm villages. Life in the fatherland was hard and toilsome, but it was not lonesome. Think for a moment how great the change must be from the white-walled, red-roofed village on a Norway fiord, with its church and schoolhouse, its fishing boats on the blue inlet, and its green mountain walls towering aloft to snow fields, to an isolated cabin on a Dakota prairie, and say if it is any wonder that so many Scandinavians lose their mental balance.” The climate and topography made the loneliness harder to bear.
If there be any region in the world where the natural gregarious instinct of mankind should assert itself, that region is our Northwest prairies, where a short hot summer is followed by a long cold winter, and where there is little in the aspect of nature to furnish food for thought…. No brooks babble under icy armor. There is no bird life after the wild geese and ducks have passed on their way south. The silence of death rests on the vast landscape, save when it is swept by cruel winds that search out every chink and cranny of the buildings, and drive through each unguarded aperture the dry, powdery snow…. A barbed-wire fence surrounds the barnyard. Rarely are there any trees, for on the prairies trees grow very slowly, and must be nursed with care to get a start….
Neighborly calls are infrequent because of the long distances which separate the farmhouses, and because, too, of the lack of homogeneity of the people. They have no common past to talk about. They were strangers to one another when they arrived in this new land, and their work and ways have not thrown them much together. Often the strangeness is intensified by differences of national origin. There are Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, French Canadians, and perhaps even such peculiar people as Finns and Icelanders, among the settlers, and the Americans came from many different states…. An alarming amount of insanity occurs in the new prairie States among farmers and their wives.
Some, like Smalley, said the only remedy was to abandon the isolated farmhouses and draw farmers together in villages. But by the 1880’s it was already too late to alter the pattern of American farm settlement.
American railroads, the connecting ligaments of the great West, had appeared in a peculiar way. In England, for example, they were commonly built to connect one city with another, to carry an already heavy traffic for people who were already there. Nineteenth-century America had seen the booster railroad arise to match the booster press, the booster college, and the upstart town. Running often from “Nowhere-in-Particular to Nowhere-at-All,” the American railroad was commonly built in the hope that it would call into being the population it would serve. If American railroads had not grown in this anachronistic way, there might never have been an opportunity or an incentive to enlist isolated farmers in the city-bred consumption communities.
In the years just after the Civil War, railroads covered the West with spectacular speed. In 1865, when there were 35,085 miles of railroad in the whole United States, only 3,272 miles were west of the Mississippi. By 1890, when the total national mileage had reached 199,876, the mileage west of the Mississippi came to 72,473, over twice that of the whole nation twenty-five years before. But the West was still sparsely populated; large areas still averaged under two inhabitants per square mile, and hardly a Western state came up to the national average of 21.2 per square mile. By 1910 the United States possessed one third of the world’s railroad mileage, and the mileage was continuing to grow. The excessively expansive, optimistic spirit of those earlier days (which, of course, did not foresee the competition of the automobile and the truck, much less the airplane) was evidenced in the fact that in nearly every year between 1916 and 1960, more mileage was abandoned than built, and in the period as a whole the total operating mileage actually declined.
The railroads did, of course, succeed in attracting people; by carrying what the people needed and what they produced, the railroads prospered. In America then, as the English economist Alfred Marshall observed in 1919, the opportunity to widen the market for any item was unlimited. The United States would be the land of “massive multiform standardization.” He noted “the inevitable preference given by great railways to large consignments traveling long distances, by which a giant business, even if far off, is at an advantage in competition with a smaller business near at hand.” Marshall was struck by “the homogeneity of the American demand for manufactured goods. Even those race differences, which have become almost a dominant factor in American life, lessen this homogeneity very little. Widely as the Scandinavians are separated from the Italians, and the native Americans from the Poles, in sentiment, in modes of life, and even in occupations they are yet purchasers of nearly the same goods. Allowance being of course made for differences of climate, they buy similar clothes, furniture, and implements.” We have already seen the significance of what Marshall called “homogeneous consumption” for Americans in cities and towns.
CHICAGO, THE RAILROAD CENTER of the nation, was the natural place from which to reach out to the vast rural hinterlands, and Chicago became the capital for the great nationwide enterprises of absentee salesmanship. The pioneer there was an energetic young transient, Aaron Montgomery Ward. Born in a small New Jersey town in 1843, Ward moved with his parents to Niles, Michigan, where he attended public school until he was fourteen, then worked in a barrel-stave factory and later in a brickyard. His first merchandising experience was in a general store in nearby St. Joseph, until he secured employment, about 1865, with young Marshall Field’s firm in Chicago. Moving on to St. Louis, he became a traveling salesman for a dry-goods wholesaler; covering the rural West, he learned the problems of the farmers who bought from a general store. Ward saw that he could reduce retail prices if he purchased large quantities for cash direct from manufacturers and then sold for cash direct to the rural consumer. This was the seed of his mail-order idea. Returning to Chicago, he began to lay his plans. The great Chicago fire of 1871 nearly consumed his savings, but by the spring of 1872 he had scraped together $1,600 of his own, to which a partner added $800.
Starting in a loft, 12 feet by 14 feet, over a livery stable, Ward issued a single price sheet which listed the items for sale and explained how to order. Within two years the price list became an 8-page booklet and then a 72-page catalogue. By eliminating the middleman, Ward promised savings of 40 percent: on fans, parasols, writing paper, needles, stereoscopes, cutlery, trunks, harnesses, and scores of other items. The catalogue grew and grew, at the same time becoming more vivid and enticing through illustrations. By the 1880’s a woodcut illustrated nearly every item. In 1883, only a decade after the founding with a capital of $2,400, the catalogue boasted goods in stock worth a half-million dollars. The catalogue for 1884 numbered 240 pages and listed nearly ten thousand items.
Montgomery Ward’s business depended on the confidence of a buyer in a seller whom he had never seen. From the beginning, Ward’s had the advantage of being the official supply house for a widespread farmers’ organization, the Patrons of Husbandry, popularly known as the “Grange.” Founded in 1867, the Grange aimed, among its other purposes, to reduce the cost of goods to the farmer by fighting “monopoly” and by eliminating middlemen. Ward’s fitted perfectly into this scheme. From 1872 through the 1880’s, Ward’s described itself on the catalogue cover as “The Original Grange Supply House,” and offered Grangers special privileges. While everybody else had to pay cash in advance or on delivery, orders from Grange officials or countersigned with the Grange seal were allowed ten days’ grace. The very first catalogue illustration was a picture of the official “Granger hat,” and early catalogues featured Granger regalia. Testimonials from Grange officials appeared regularly in Ward’s catalogues, and some Granges actually sent representatives to Chicago to inspect their supply house.
Everything was done to build up the friendly confidence needed to induce farmers to buy goods sight unseen from a distant warehouse run by strangers. For it had been the farmer’s custom to buy his store goods from an old acquaintance, the country storekeeper, and even then only after close inspection. A. Montgomery Ward built his business on his hope for a revolution in farmers’ buying habits.
In other words, this meant creating a new consumption community of rural Americans. Soon Ward’s announced that the same savings given to Grangers would be offered to all buyers. Hesitant customers were attracted and reassured by Ward’s ironclad guarantee: all goods were sent “subject to examination,” and any item found unsatisfactory could be returned to the company, which paid for the transportation both ways. Signed testimonials from the secretaries and masters of Granges all over the West, were printed in the catalogues. And just as the customer had to have confidence in the unseen seller, so, too, the firm had to have confidence in the unseen customer—to believe his complaints in order to refund his money or to replace his goods without delaying to investigate. Even after Ward’s community of customers had grown to hundreds of thousands, the firm took pains to reassure each of them that the company was his friend. This helps us understand why early catalogues showed pictures of the founders, of company executives, and even of the buyers for individual departments; these men personally signed catalogue guarantees for the goods. Customers wrote in to say how pleased they were to deal with such “fine looking men.” Some, who had named their babies after Mr. Ward, requested photographs, which might be an inspiration to the child.
Correspondence from customers received close personal attention. One husband asked Mr. Ward to select a hat to be a birthday present for his red-headed wife. Another customer asked him to help her find some summer boarders. A single mail in 1908 brought inquiries about the reliability of Field’s and Wanamaker’s and about procedures for proving land claims, along with requests for the name of a good lawyer, for an honest hired girl, and for a baby to adopt. Some customers asked if they could pay in produce instead of cash; some tried to sell Mr. Ward their secondhand furniture or their livestock. Others asked help in finding runaway boys, sought advice on how to discipline disobedient children, how to regain a husband’s love. Still others wrote to assuage their loneliness or simply because they had nobody else to write to.
Many of these letters show the remote farmer relying on Mr. Ward much as their Southern colonial predecessors had relied on a London (or later a Baltimore, New Orleans, or Charleston) factor. In colonial days it was not unheard of for a planter to ask his London factor to select his books or to ship him a suitable wife. Now Mr. Ward received hundreds of letters annually from men seeking wives and even a few from women seeking husbands. We are not surprised to find a lonely farmer proposing marriage to the “girl wearing hat number—–of your catalogue.” A blacksmith wanting a wife promised that he was a total abstainer from tobacco, cards, and whiskey. “As you advertise everything for sale that a person wants,” one customer from the state of Washington reasoned, “I thought I would write you, as I am in need of a wife, and see what you could do for me.” While some bachelors were vague (“Not particular as to nationality”) or simply asked for pictures and prices of good wives, others knew precisely what they wanted:
Please send me a good wife. She must be a good housekeeper and able to do all household duty. She must be 5 feet 6 inches in height. Weight 150 lbs. Black hair and brown eyes, either fair or dark.
I am 45 years old, six feet, am considered a good-looking man. I have black hair and blue eyes. I own quite a lot of stock and land. I am tired of living a bachelor life and wish to lead a better life and more favorable.
Please write and let me know what you can do for me.
Ward’s, instead of treating these as crank letters, shrewdly advised that it was not wise to select a wife by mail, but added that “after you get the wife and you find that she needs some wearing apparel or households goods, we feel sure we could serve both you and her to good advantage.”
Customers sometimes felt bound to explain why they had not recently written to Mr. Ward:
I suppose you wonder why we haven’t ordered anything from you since the fall. Well, the cow kicked my arm and broke it and besides my wife was sick, and there was the doctor bill. But now, thank God, that is paid, and we are all well again, and we have a fine new baby boy, and please send plush bonnet number 29d8077….
This friendly customer received an equally personal reply: regrets about the broken arm, pleasure that the wife was recovered, congratulations on the son with hopes that he would grow up to be a fine man, acknowledgment of the order for the bonnet, plus an inquiry whether the customer had noticed the anti-cow-kicker shown in the catalogue.
WARD HAD ALREADY proved the success of the mail-order idea when another young man, apparently uninfluenced by Ward’s example and taking a path quite different from Ward’s, began to develop a mail-order business destined to be even vaster than Ward’s. Without the advantage of the Grange name and with almost no capital himself, young Richard Warren Sears had a sharp eye for how to use other men’s capital, and how to make the most of the organizations, especially the railroads, which others had been building. From an early age Sears, who had been raised in rural Minnesota, had to help support his family. He learned telegraphy, which was then a qualification to be a railroad station agent, and he secured the job managing the railroad and express office of the Minneapolis and St. Louis line at North Redwood, Minnesota, a village of three houses. Since his duties as agent took little of his time, he made a business of selling wood, coal, and lumber to the farmers and the Indians. He could offer these at an attractively low price because of the special freight rates he could secure; and he bought the farmers’ meat and berries which he shipped out at a profit.
In 1886 when a package of watches sent by a Chicago jewelry company was refused by the addressee in nearby Redwood Falls, station agent Sears saw his opportunity. In those days it was common for wholesalers to ship on consignment to retailers; in fact, they sometimes tried to unload stock by shipping goods that had not been ordered. Or they would deliberately ship to fictitious addresses. Then, when the railroad station agent informed them that the goods were undeliverable, the wholesaler would offer the goods to the station agent at “half-price” suggesting that this would save the shipper the cost of return freight, and that by reselling them, the station agent could make a good profit. Following this pattern, the Chicago company offered these undeliverable watches to Sears for $12 apiece. They were of a stylish type, gold-filled, so-called “yellow watches” with a hunting case, which retailed for about $25.
Instead of paying for the watches himself, Sears took advantage of his location on the railroad to offer them by mail to other agents along his line for $14 apiece. He offered to send them C.O.D. subject to examination, and since the station agents were bonded, there was little risk. The other agents along the line would then be in a position to sell these popular watches profitably at less than their price at the local jewelers. From this casual beginning, using the stock furnished by a Chicago wholesaler, Sears soon built a flourishing watch business. Sears himself extended his business by the old-fashioned techniques of sending his watches to nonexistent persons and then offering a moneymaking opportunity to the lucky agents who held the unclaimed parcels.
Having made about $5,000 in six months, Sears gave up his station-agent job and, in 1886, set up the R. W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis. From an office renting for $10 a month, equipped with a kitchen table, a fifty-cent chair, some record books and stationery, he now reached out beyond the market of station agents by advertising in the newspapers. In 1887 he moved to Chicago, which was already the railroad capital of the nation. There he enlisted the help of Alvah Curtis Roebuck, a watchmaker of about Sears’ age, who had also run a job-printing business, and Sears quickly showed his flair for advertising. His ingenious selling schemes included a “club plan” under which thirty-eight men clubbed together, each paying $1 a week into a pool; each week one man would win a watch by lot, until at the end of thirty-eight weeks all the members had their watches.
Sears’ market was still primarily among station agents, but there were about twenty thousand of these in the country at the time. And, of course, they were a select clientele, not only because they were all bonded, but also because they tended to be steady men of good character. Sears’ ironclad guarantee made it easier for him to attract customers from the general public. From the beginning he planned for low profit margins, but aimed at large volume and rapid turnover. All this was to be made possible by extensive advertising to attract an ever-widening community of customers. In 1889 Sears sold his young watch business for about $70,000. But within a few months he was back again in the mail-order business, still featuring watches, watch chains, and other jewelry. His business was built around a catalogue which combined scrupulously honest guarantees (“Satisfaction or Your Money Back”) with flamboyant unprovable claims (goods were “The Best in the World” and would “Last Forever”).
In the early days, especially when Sears was still relying heavily on newspaper advertising, his ingenuity and his remoteness from the customer occasionally tempted him into the tradition of Western hoaxes. “An Astonishing Offer” which he announced in rural weeklies in 1889 was illustrated by a drawing of a sofa and two chairs, all of “fine lustrous metal frames beautifully finished and decorated, and upholstered in the finest manner and with beautiful plush” which “as an advertisement only” and only for the next sixty days would be sent to anyone who remitted ninety-five cents “to pay expenses, boxing, packing, advertising, etc.” Customers who sent in their money received a set of doll’s furniture exactly as specified; they had not noticed in the first line of the advertisement, in fine print, the word “miniature.” Sears’ clever advertising became proverbial. There was the story, for example, of a Sears advertisement which offered a “sewing machine” for $1—for which the customer duly received a needle and thread.
By the time the firm name of Sears, Roebuck and Company came into use in 1893, the business had moved into a wide range of merchandise, including clothes, furniture, sewing machines, baby carriages, and musical instruments, described in a catalogue of 196 pages. As the firm grew, Sears made a special effort to keep the personal touch. For some time, even after the typewriter had come into general use, letters sent out by the company were handwritten, out of respect for the feelings of the farm clientele who were sometimes offended to receive a letter that was “machine-made.”
And Sears’ business grew, increasing in volume even during the depression years of 1893–94. “We will forfeit ten thousand dollars ($10,000.00) in cash to any worthy charity,” the cover of Sears’ 1907 catalogue announced, “if anyone can prove that any other five (5) catalogue houses in the United States, selling general merchandise exclusively to the consumer, the same as we do, can show combined sales for the twelve months ending July 30, 1907, aggregating as much as [Sears’] $53,188,901.00.”
WHILE THE CITY MERCHANT used newspaper advertising to entice customers to come see his merchandise, for the mail-order merchant the catalogue (which was his advertising) was also his only merchandise display. The catalogue was his shop window, his store counter, and his salesman. It would have been hard to imagine a way of selling that was more dependent on advertising. In the early days before 1890, Sears was still doing considerable advertising in certain periodicals, then known as “mail-order” magazines, which circulated in the rural market. Such advertisements aimed, by popularizing the Sears name, to increase the demand for catalogues. Newspapers, under pressure from the local merchants who were fighting for their lives against the “Mail-Order Trust,” often refused to sell advertising space to Sears. Meanwhile the Ladies’ Home Journal, which would have been a natural medium, refused to take Sears’ copy because its editor, Cyrus H. K. Curtis, thought Sears’ copy was extravagant in its claims and undignified in its make-up.
In the mail-order business, the catalogue was the thing. And in the form that great mail-order houses developed, the catalogue was something new under the sun, a kind of booster press for an upstart community of consumers. And what it brought was more than news, for it sought to persuade and attract. The first object was to get the catalogue out into people’s hands. Rural Free Delivery, as we shall see in the following chapter, was the great boon.
One successful Sears plan was to send the catalogues in batches of twenty-four to persons who agreed to distribute them. A record was kept for thirty days of purchases by the new customers to whom the “distributor” had given catalogues. The distributor then received a premium which increased in value with the size of the purchases he had stimulated: at one time, for example, total orders amounting to $100 would earn the catalogue distributor a bicycle, a sewing machine, or a stove.
Richard W. Sears was a fanatic for the catalogue, and for years he wrote nearly all the copy himself. The basis for the Sears business, he insisted, was the widest possible distribution of catalogues to the most likely customers. Policy varied from year to year on whether to charge for the catalogue; when it was not offered free, the price varied from five cents in 1893 to fifty cents in 1901, but the best customers always received their catalogues free. As a reward for their loyalty they sometimes were sent a deluxe edition on better paper bound in red cloth.
The circulation of the general catalogue increased phenomenally: from some 318,000 in 1897 (the first year for which figures are available) to over 1 million for the spring catalogue in 1904, to over 2 million for the spring catalogue the very next year, and over 3 million for the fall catalogue in 1907. Since there were two annual editions, one in spring and one in fall, the total number of general catalogues distributed each year was about double these figures. Circulation figures for the general catalogue climbed steadily, reaching 7 million in each of the two seasons by the late ‘20’s. In 1927 Sears, Roebuck sent out 10 million circular letters, 15 million general catalogues, 23 million semiannual sales catalogues and other special catalogues, to a grand total of 75 million.
As circulation spread, the book became bigger, more vivid, and easier to use. By 1894 exceeded 500 pages; in 1898 a detailed index was provided. In 1903 Sears set up its own printing plant, and improvements in the quality of the catalogue came year after year. Sears turned to linotype, then to four-color printing, which required an improved ink to dry rapidly without smearing. The company then had to produce new paper which would take color printing and would still be light enough for cheap mailing. As late as 1905, more than half the illustrations were still woodcuts; and art historians have suggested that it was the mail-order catalogue that kept alive the art of wood engraving.
The mail-order catalogue pioneered in other techniques of illustration. Since Ward’s and Sears’ could not show the customer the actual product they wanted him to buy, they obviously had to depend on the catalogue to give him an accurate and enticing view. The extent of their market and their control over catalogue circulation gave them an opportunity to experiment. They are credited with the “discovery,” for example, that four pages in color would sell as much of the same goods as twelve pages in black-and-white.
SOME HAVE CALLED the big mail-order catalogues the first characteristically American kind of book. Since colonial times, Americans had been more notable for their almanacs, newspapers, magazines and how-to-do-it manuals than for their treatises: the relevant, the topical, the ephemeral, had been more expressive of American life than the systematic and the monumental. The Sears, Roebuck Catalogue was the Bible of the new rural consumption communities. The newer gospels would be more dispersed, and would include sounds and living pictures going into a thousand places, on billboards, over radio waves, in television images.
It was not merely facetious to say that many farmers came to live more intimately with the good Big Book of Ward’s or Sears, Roebuck than with the Good Book. The farmer kept his Bible in the frigid parlor, but as Edna Ferber remarked in Fanny Herself(1917), her novel of the mail-order business, the mail-order catalogue was kept in the cozy kitchen. That was where the farm family ate and where they really lived. For many such families the catalogue probably expressed their most vivid hopes for salvation. It was no accident that pious rural customers without embarrassment called the catalogue “the Farmer’s Bible.” There was a familiar story of the little boy who was asked by his Sunday School teacher where the Ten Commandments came from, and who unhesitatingly replied that they came from Sears, Roebuck.
Just as, three centuries before, New England schoolchildren had learned the path to salvation along with their ABC’s and had learned how to read at the same time that they learned the tenets of their community, so farm children now learned from the new Bible of their consumption community. In rural schoolhouses, children were drilled in reading and spelling from the catalogue. They practiced arithmetic by filling out orders and adding up items. They tried their hand at drawing by copying the catalogue models, and acquired geography by studying the postal-zone maps. In schoolrooms that had no other encyclopedia, a Ward’s or Sears’ catalogue handily served the purpose; it was illustrated, it told you what something was made of and what it was good for, how long it would last, and even what it cost. Many a mother in a household with few children’s books pacified her child with the pictures in the catalogue. When the new book arrived, the pictures in the old catalogue were indelibly fixed in the memory of girls who cut them up for paper dolls. Just as Puritan children were supposed to think of their Bible as an exhaustive catalogue of the “types” which provided the pattern for all the actual happenings of the world, so the children of rural America thought of the big books from Sears’ and Ward’s as exhaustive catalogues of the material world.