Before the Internet, Boomers Had Mail-Order Catalog Showrooms

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.

Montgomery Ward
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.

J.C. Penney
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?

Boomer Comparison: Drug Stores Then and Now

In the age before the shopping mall, drug stores were locally owned and served as general stores for a variety of family needs. See if you recall your family in these Mister Boomer experiences:

Then: Your doctor wrote a prescription on paper and you brought it to your neighborhood pharmacist. Mister B does recall some instances when the doctor phoned the pharmacy when his mother was ill, then he would ride his bike to the drug store and pick up her prescription. His father could always pay for it later. It was a time before the proliferation of credit cards, so, like a lot of stores, the drug store maintained a book of what people owed if they couldn’t pay at that moment.

Now: Prescriptions are still filled at neighborhood pharmacies — but chances are, these days the store is part of a national chain. Pharmacists are still licensed and can give advice on medications, the same as in early days. When we were young, though, the pharmacist probably knew the names of everyone in the family. Home centers, warehouse stores and super stores also have internal pharmacies. For ongoing prescriptions, savings can be gained by ordering in bulk from online pharmacies that ship the prescriptions directly to your home.

Then and Now: When we were young, a man had to ask the pharmacist for condoms since they were kept behind the prescription counter. It was an Urban Rite of Passage for every boy over the age of 16 to carry a condom “at the ready” in his wallet. Many a boomer boy will tell of the embarrassment they felt asking the pharmacist, especially when the man knew his family. Some rebels who had a devil-may-care attitude toward the exchange would dole out extras to his neighborhood chums or school pals, which is how most boomer boys got their wallet condom. It didn’t matter that 99 percent of them would never be used for their intended purpose.
Today, condoms are openly displayed and readily accessible in drug stores, and the variety has expanded well beyond what was hidden under the counter fifty years ago.

Also, most drug stores have expanded their services to include wellness clinic, and flu shots administered by trained medical practitioners.

Then: Mister Boomer recalls many times when the family was heading out the door to a wedding when his mother asked his father, “Did you buy a card?” Inevitably, his answer was, “No.” Mister B’s dad would drive over to the drug store. While the family stayed in the car, he’d run in for a card. The store’s cards were kept just inside the parking lot entry. Two minutes later he would return with a wedding card. The drug store had all the cards the family would need in the course of a year, from birthdays to Valentine’s Day; weddings to anniversaries; get well to sympathies.

Now: Most drug stores maintain a card area, though the stock has changed due to Internet competition. Less cards are being purchased, so much of the inventory is devoted to cards that play music, specialty shapes and papers — in other words, cards for which they can charge a premium.

Photo Processing
Then: Many boomers recall going to the drug store with their parents to drop off film for developing. A week to ten days later, you could return and get your prints and the negatives.

Now: Some drug stores have eliminated their photo processing departments, while others have greatly reduced the visibility of the services. Prints can still be ordered from some drug store/pharmacies, but now in many cases they can be ordered online and picked up in any location across the country.

Then: In an age before large discount stores and malls, the local drug store was the closest thing to a general store in most neighborhoods. A family could pick up everyday necessities, such as toilet paper and toothpaste, but also seasonal needs like spring picnic supplies, summer beach necessities and winter snow and ice needs. For Mister Boomer, his drug store was his number one connection for car, boat and plane model kits and the Testor’s paints and glue he needed to complete the projects. All of Mister B’s monster models — Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolfman and Phantom of the Opera — came from his drug store. So did his model of PT 109, the patrol boat Lt. John F. Kennedy captained in World War II.

Now: You can still get a wide variety of items at drug stores, from needles and threads to car accessories, seasonal needs to snacks and cold drinks. It’s been a while since Mister Boomer has noticed model car and plane kits at his area drug stores, but he likes to think there are still drug stores out there that stock them for the youngsters interested in building the kits.

TV Tube Testing
Then: In an age when every father was expected to fix things around the house, TV tube replacement was among the easiest since it was tantamount to replacing a light bulb. Mister Boomer remembers his father opening the back of their black & white TV and pulling one to three tubes of varying sizes. A quick trip the drug store was all that was needed to test the tubes and buy replacements. Mister Boomer remembers the drug store’s test station that sat near the center of the store. The angled wooden top had a series of multiple-hole slots, each numbered to match a specific tube. By plugging the tube into the appropriate slot and flipping the on switch, a customer could test to see if his TV tube was still good. Replacements were found in drawers below the top.

Now: TVs with vacuum tubes were still being manufactured in the early 1990s, but have now disappeared as electronic inventions have replaced the need for them. Consequently, drug stores no longer have a need for TV tube test stations.

Soda Fountain
Then: Perhaps the quintessential defining area of every drug store in the boomer era (and the generation before) was a soda fountain. Soda jerks were the uniformed workers — men and women — who manned the counter. They served up ice cream sodas, sundaes, banana splits and in some cases, hot dogs and sandwiches. It was the ice cream that Mister Boomer remembers. His father promised him a banana split after he had his tonsils removed when he was six years old. It was the first one he had ever eaten, and it was at the neighborhood drug store’s soda fountain. It was a thing of beauty, with half slices of banana slipped on the sides of a long glass dish. Then scoops of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream were layered in, and covered with whipped cream. Hot fudge was drizzled on top of the whipped cream, followed by crushed walnuts. A cherry, centered over the middle scoop of ice cream, completed the masterpiece. Sometimes Mister B’s father would get him and his siblings a sundae while waiting for a prescription to be filled.

Now: Unless the drug store is a themed nostalgia establishment, the vast majority have eliminated the soda fountain.

A trip to the drug store could be a mundane affair, but as Mister Boomer recalls, it could also be an event. A child could experience the joy ice cream can bring, or take home a kite, model or toy while his parents acquired their needs.

What did your drug store mean to you, boomers?