A hundred years before the Internet appeared, mail order businesses were thriving thanks to the latest technology: railroads. By the beginning of the Golden Age of Railroads in the 1870s, entrepreneurs were taking full advantage of shipping by rail, among them mail order businesses that boomers knew in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Cities were growing along with industry, and along with them, department and other retail stores appeared to serve city families. After the Civil War, sixty-five percent of the people in the country were farmers who could not easily get to a city that was large enough to support a strong retail presence in order to shop, so mail order businesses helped them take part in the growing consumer market by bringing the goods to them via the Post Office and shipping by rail. Chief among these soon-to-be retail giants were Montgomery Ward; Sears, Roebuck and Company; and J.C. Penney.
Aaron Montgomery Ward started his mail order business in Illinois in 1872 with 100 items listed on a “catalog” sheet. He wrote the descriptions of the items himself. His business was an instant success. In less than ten years, his company was the number one mail order house in the nation. By 1883, his catalog had grown to 240 pages featuring more than 10,000 items. His thriving business needed warehouse space and a distribution center, which he built in Chicago. From there he could reach all parts of the country.
Due to pressure from city dwellers and new competitors — such as Richard Sears — Ward began opening retail stores and catalog showrooms in major cities, never abandoning the mail order business that made him famous. The company continued to do so until the 1950s. When boomer families moved into newly expanding suburbs, the company thought it too expensive to invest in the malls that were beginning to crop up, signaling the beginning of the decline of the entire operation, including the mail order business.
Montgomery Ward ended their mail order business in 1995, and closed all its retail operations in 2001. However, they still operate via the Internet.
Sears, Roebuck and Company
Richard Warren Sears was a railroad station agent in Minnesota when he got the idea to sell watches and jewelry via mail order, directly in competition with Montgomery Ward. He began operations in Minneapolis in 1886 under the name of R.W. Sears Watch Company. One year later he moved to Chicago and advertised for a business partner. Alvah Curtis Roebuck answered his ad and the company became Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893. The two expanded their inventory to serve the needs of farmers and their families, including furniture, millinery, stoves, baby carriages, glassware, saddles, firearms, saddles, bicycles and jewelry. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold entire houses through their mail order catalog. The complete house arrived as labelled parts in a kit at the buyer’s site, ready to assemble. In those three decades, it is estimated that Sears sold more than 70,000 house kits.
The first retail Sears store opened in 1925, within the Sears warehouse distribution center in Chicago. Sears opened stores across the country while maintaining its catalog business leading into World War II. After the War, unlike Montgomery Ward, Sears expanded into the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s, becoming the main anchor store for many malls, which led to the company’s current predicament.
Sears struggles to survive today as stronger competitors such as Walmart and Bed, Bath & Beyond offer the same or similar items for less, to say nothing of Amazon online.
James Cash Penney went the opposite route taken by Ward and Sears, and established his retail store before his mail order business. The first store opened in 1902 in Wyoming, and his first mail order catalog followed shortly thereafter. By the 1920s, Penney stores expanded nationwide. When Penney died in 1971, his retail empire was the second largest in the country, behind only Sears.
Mister Boomer Recalls the Catalogs
For the most part, Mister Boomer’s family shopped in stores rather than through catalogs. There were actual Montgomery Ward, Sears and Penney stores near his location, and each had a section within the store where the catalog was available for ordering. Nonetheless, there was a Penney’s catalog showroom in Mister Boomer’s town. He recalls going the to the J.C. Penney catalog store, a small storefront on the city’s main street, with his mother in the late 1950s. Inside were platforms holding the J.C. Penney catalogs, situated at a height for the consumer to stand and thumb through the pages. Mister B remembers his mother looking for drapes, but does not recall if she ordered any.
Mister Boomer remembers his family having Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs at home. In a move that is the opposite of what some families do today, his father and brother might search through the catalogs for tools or auto accessories, but then went to the store to make the purchase rather than mail away for it. Affordable gas and cars, and the proliferation of malls leading up to the 1970s meant less reason for mail order businesses in the suburbs.
Mister Boomer has another theory as to why these retailers struggled after the Baby Boom and into the ’90s: their lack of coolness in the ’60s. Boomers were beginning to develop a look all their own, and these stores were very late in adopting new styles. Mister Boomer recalls never wanting to go to “Monkey Wards,” as boomers called it, for back-to-school clothes. Likewise Sears and Penny’s were not the places for fashion. It was all Mister Boomer and his siblings could do to accept socks and underwear for Christmas, knowing that their parents had purchased them from these establishments. All three stores were looked down on by many boomers that Mister B knew, as stores where their parents and grandparents shopped. Stores like The Gap were opening in malls, and they catered to the New Generation.
Did your family shop the “Big Three” mail order catalogs by the book or in catalog showrooms, boomers?