Online Shopping Before the Internet

Online Shopping Before the Internet

© David Burton 2019

The Office

     Here in the year 2019, much of our retail shopping is done on-line via the internet. Even a 10-year old child can be an on-line shopper these days. All one needs is a lap-top, a password, and an account with which to make payment. Delivery of ordered goods can be the next day, with the promise of same-day delivery in the offing.

     But, when I was growing up during the last 6 decades of the twentieth century, such was not the case. Until very late in the last century, there was no laptop computer, no internet and no on-line ordering of goods. The closest thing to on-line purchasing was the ordering of items over the telephone – the land-line telephone that is. The ordered items could either be delivered to one's home a few (or several) days later, or the purchased items could be picked up at a local store.

     In addition to the fully-stocked Sear Roebuck retail stores where one could do live shopping, there were also Sears Roebuck catalog stores that carried no merchandise, but had the ubiquitous Sears Roebuck catalog and live people to help with choosing and ordering goods. The Sears Roebuck catalog was big business back then.

     So, “back then”, was it possible to go shopping without having to go a brick-and-mortar store? The answer is yes. “Long before the internet and online ordering, mail order catalogues were one of the only ways that the American rural population had to buy a variety of merchandise for themselves and their homes. Before the advent of mail order catalogues, people in isolated communities throughout the United States purchased from general stores, often from a very limited selection of goods. The price they paid for their purchases was often inflated due to the scarcity of competition for the shop owner and the high cost of carrying inventory.
     “Railway station agent Richard Warren Sears stumbled upon an opportunity to purchase a large selection of watches from a Chicago area jeweler who was seeking to reduce his inventory. Sears was able to sell the watches to his fellow railway agents and quickly ordered more watches which he sold through a mail order catalogue under the company name ‘The R.W. Sears Watch Co.’ When this venture proved successful, Sears moved to Chicago where he went into business with Alvah Roebuck and the first Sears watch catalogue was published in 1888.
     “By 1893, Sears and Roebuck decided to diversify their business, no longer selling just watches but general merchandise as well. In 1894, their catalogue was 322 pages and featured a variety of products. Customers would complete an order form, send payment and then receive their orders, often delivered by one of the new railway lines that were spreading across America in the period.
     “By 1895, sales had exceeded $750,000 and continued to grow as the product lines expanded to include new and exciting products including toys, groceries, sewing machines, farm equipment, kitchen stoves and even eye glasses. Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy clothing manufacturer bought out Roebuck’s interest in 1895. In 1896, free rural postal delivery was introduced in the United States, making mail order shopping even more popular. No longer did the rural Sears customers have to journey to the nearest pick up location. Their shopping would now be delivered directly to their door by the new service. The new postal arrangement resulted in unprecedented growth in the Sears Roebuck catalogue business and their catalogue in the Spring of 1896 boasted that their building at Fulton and Desplaines in Chicago was the largest business of its kind under one roof.
     “In 1896, Sears Roebuck employed 500 people at the Fulton store including 30 stenographers, 25 corresponding clerks, 12 expert buyers, and 12 mail clerks. They had four large elevators travelling from floor to floor in the building. They boasted that they sold 2,000 suits every day and a buggy every 10 minutes; a watch each minute and a revolver every 2 minutes.
     “The freight department was in the basement and the main floor was the hub of the office with over 200 people working to process the mail orders. The second floor housed the Watch and Jewelry Department, the Gun and Sporting Goods Department and the Musical Goods Department along with offices of the Advertising Manager and the Stationery and Advertising staff. The third floor was where the Harness and Vehicle Department was located along with another Department of Furniture, Baby Carriages and Crockery. The Hardware department took up the entire north wing of the floor. On the fourth floor, outbound shipments were processed and on the fifth floor there were Gent’s Furnishings, Books, Dry Goods, Ladies Wearing Apparel including hats, boots and shoes. The sixth floor was home to the massive Clothing department.

     According to a Sears catalog of the time:

The policy of our house is to supply the consumer everything on which we can save him money, goods that can be delivered at your door anywhere in the United States for less money than they can be procured from your local dealer, and although our line covers about everything the consumer uses, there is scarcely an article but what will admit saving of at least 15 per cent and from that to 75 per cent, to say nothing of the fact that our goods are as a rule of a higher grade than those carried by the average retailer or catalogue house, and we earnestly believe a careful comparison will convince you that we sell more goods and of better value than you could obtain for the same money from any other establishment in the United States.
     Historic Catalogs of Sears, Roebuck and Co. Spring 1896

     “Sears added many specialty catalogues for their customers and issued the general catalogue twice a year.
     “The format of the catalogue changed from the smaller 6 inch by 9-inch book to a full-sized 8 inch by 11 book and in 1903, the catalogue included the guarantee Your money back if not satisfied.
     “The following year saw the introduction of a customer loyalty program as Sears introduced Profit Sharing Certificates, which could be redeemed for selected items.
     “In 1905, Sears even introduced a line of automobiles manufactured by Lincoln Automobile Works of Chicago.
     “In the Fall 1907 catalogue, Sears offered a 6-month bookkeeping course which included an astounding seven pounds of materials including lessons, a free penmanship course and a six month supply of bookkeeping materials. {the first on-line education course in the U.S.?}
     "Revenues had grown to more than $50 million by 1907 and Sears began selling home building kits under the name Sears Modern Homes, complete with almost all the materials required to build a home and detailed instructions geared to allow the home owner to do his own construction. Models available ranged from small bungalows to much larger 14 room homes with upwards of 70,000 kits being sold between 1907 and 1940. {the start of the do-it-yourself craze in the U.S.?}
     “The home kit line was finally discontinued in 1940 when building codes and standards made kit homes too expensive and too complicated to build for the average householder.
     “It was 1925 when Sears opened their first retail store on the West side of Chicago. Two years later there were 27 stores in operation. By 1931, retail sales surpassed mail-order sales for the first time.
     “. . . {The} annual Sears Christmas Wish Book {was mailed out} in the months leading up to the Christmas season.  . . . First published in 1933, the Sears Wish Book was a cornucopia of toys, games and everything else that a child could possibly want for Christmas.”(Ref. 1)

     “By the early 20th century, the Sears catalog had become so entwined with the American psyche that the government began to use it for propaganda purposes at home and abroad. During the World Wars, thousands of catalogs were sent to American soldiers at the front and convalescing in foreign hospitals to bring them a taste of home. President Franklin Roosevelt famously said that the best way to combat communism was to give them a good dollop of capitalism in the form of Sears catalogs. The Soviets took note—in 1981 they selected that year’s catalog as one of 300 works put on display in a cultural exhibit meant to inform the Soviet public about America. (They also included ‘Jane Fonda’s Workout Book.’)
      - - -
     “In addition to being a cultural touchstone, the catalog was big, big business. By 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, Sears’ catalog and retail businesses generated annual profits of more than $2.5 billion in today’s money, and within the next decade, the company’s sales accounted for more than 1 percent of U.S. gross national product.”(Ref. 2)

     “Sears discontinued distribution of the general merchandise catalog in 1993. The company continued to distribute the extremely popular Craftsman Power and Hand Tools as well as licensed specialty catalogs. In 2007, Sears slowly went back into the proprietary catalog business by bringing back the Wish Book and adding new titles including Simply Indoors, Simply Outdoors, Smart Kitchens, The Workwear Authority and Wish Book Toys.  . . .”(Ref. 3)

     To some, the Sears Roebuck catalog even served an additional function – its pages sometimes took the place of toilet paper. “Before toilet paper, people mainly used whatever was free and readily available for personal hygiene. Unfortunately, many of the options were quite painful: Wood shavings, hay, rocks, corn cobs, and even frayed anchor cables. Ancient Romans used a sponge on a stick that sat in a bucket of salt water and was shared by everyone (yuck). Leaves, rags, moss and rags were some of the less-painful (and probably more sanitary) options. Wealthy people used wool, lace or other fabrics.
     The idea of toilet paper actually dates back to medieval China, when a Chinese emperor used 2-foot by 3-foot sheets of paper. Paper has been used for bathroom duty for thousands of years since then. In the late 15th century, paper became readily available, so newspaper was commonly used as toilet paper. In more modern times, Americans used the Sears & Roebuck catalog [Emphasis mine] . . .” (Ref. 4)


  1. Sears Roebuck Mail Order Catalogue, Barbara J Starmans,
    THE SOCIAL HISTORIAN, Accessed 15 August 2019.
  2. The Mother of All Catalogs Ceases Publication, Barbara Maranzani,,
    Accessed 15 August 2019.
  3. When did Sears stop distributing the catalog?,, Accessed 15 August 2019.
  4. The History of Toilet Paper, REDDIROOT’R, 12 December 2018.
  20 September 2019 {Article 377; Suggestions?_29    
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