The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog

Larry Holzwarth - January 31, 2019

Before there was Amazon and eBay and all of the plethora of online shopping sites, there was the catalog, from which virtually anything needed could be ordered. Sears Roebuck was built on catalog sales, as was Montgomery Ward. J. C. Penney operated catalog stores, from which merchandise could be ordered for delivery, after seeing the item or items in the store.

Holiday catalogs were heavy and thick, from which children could easily build their lists of what they wanted from during the annual December spending spree. Outdoorsmen could order their gear from catalogs, gardeners their seeds for the next season. Virtually any product available in stores legally were ordered and shipped to the customer using the means available at the time – the railroads and the United States Post Office.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Virtually any item available for purchase by consumers in the United States was available through the Sears catalog, as well as competitors. Wikimedia

Among the seemingly countless mundane items of everyday life were some which would today be considered unusual. Online shoppers today know that any household item can be ordered for delivery online, but they might be surprised to learn that in the not so distant past it was possible to order an entire house from a catalog, delivered unassembled to the customer’s lot, where he or his contractor could erect it at leisure. There were several designs, in multiple sizes available from Sears, Wards, and other companies, and many still stand in communities across the United States. After purchasing and assembling the house, everything needed to furnish it was also available, as well as anything necessary to support the lifestyle of the proud new homeowner.

Here is a list of some of the more unusual items which were once available for purchase from catalogs in the United States, delivered to the purchaser’s door.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Products were marketed with text-heavy entries in catalogs describing their use and the results to be obtained. Wikimedia

1. Customers could purchase a bust developer and cream from the Sears Catalog

The 1897 Sears catalog contained the usual fashion section for women, and for those who found the newer fashions which included in many cases a bustle and a lowered neckline formidable, it offered the means to, shall we say, grow into them. For those women who considered their bust line to be insufficient to the task of properly displaying the latest in women’s fashion, Sears (and other catalogs) offered a remedy, to be used in the privacy of their own home. The Princess Bust Developer and Bust Cream or Food was offered as a “new scientific help to nature”, which according to the advertisement in the Sears catalog, “will enlarge any lady’s bust from 2 to 3 inches”. Sears thoughtfully provided a free bottle of Fleur de Lis Bust Expander and Tissue builder with every order.

The Princess model resembled nothing so much as a standard toilet plunger, and its use can readily be imagined without the need for a detailed description. Two different diameter sizes were offered for sale, though Sears recommended the smaller four-inch diameter as creating “the most desirable size”. The developer was augmented by the Bust Cream or Food, which was intended to be massaged into the skin, “required for the starved skin and wasted tissues”. Sears claimed the formula was the result of the study of an eminent French chemist, and that, “Full Directions are Furnished and Success is Assured”. Together the Bust Cream or Food and the Princess Bust Developer (plus the free bottle of Fleur de Lis) were sold for the price of $1.46, including a money-back guarantee for those left unsatisfied with the product.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
The Sears Motor Buggy was built by the Lincoln Motor Car Works of Chicago, not related to today’s Ford line of Lincoln cars and trucks. CNN

2. The 1909 Sears catalog included a car called the “Motor Buggy” and a garage in which to keep it

In 1909 Sears proudly offered its Motor Buggy in two versions in its catalogs, with the price depending on whether the consumer preferred the base model, which lacked fenders and a top ($370.00 and called the Runabout) or the dressed up Motor Buggy which not only added those features, but which came complete with a gallon of lubricating oil, three oil-burning lamps, genuine rubber tires on its wheels, and a storm front (today what would be called a windshield). The top model was $395, and Sears promised it was capable of running at all speeds from 1 to 25 miles per hour, making it, “Speedy, Economical, Noiseless, Durable and Safe”. According to the advertisement, it was so simple that a child could run it, though the picture featured a woman driving the machine.

Sears offered the Motor Buggy under the terms of cash only, the Sears Credit Card was still something of the future at the time. Recognizing that the purchaser of the car may need a place to store the vehicle when not in use, Sears directed the catalog reader to the Building Materials and Mill Work Pages of the catalog for information on “Ready Made Portable Garages”. Sears also offered an upgrade package of options, which consisted of electric lamps and a generator to run them for another $12.95, rather than the standard oil burning lamps. The ad promised that the vehicle was so complete that there was nothing left for the owner to buy but gasoline (which at the time was available mostly from pharmacies and dry cleaners).

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Those looking for live chicks to raise as layers or for other purposes had only to open the Sears catalog. Ancestry,com

3. The Sears catalog did not offer eggs, but it did offer chickens

Farmers and urban dwellers with lots large enough to maintain their own hen-houses for fresh eggs for their tables had only to turn to the Sears catalog to order chickens, both laying hens and what were referred to as dual-purpose chickens. The birds were shipped as day-old chicks, and a variety of breeds were offered, including Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks, and others. Sears labeled their chickens under the brand Farm-Master (as they later labeled appliances Kenmore and tools as Craftsmen). Sears was in the business of selling live chickens well into the 1940s, though by then the majority of the business was to farmers, as the supermarket and the in-home refrigerator made the keeping of laying hens unnecessary for most American homes.

Along with the live chicks, Sears of course offered everything necessary to their care and feeding, including ready-made coops as well as the materials to build one’s own, feed and vitamins to ensure healthy chickens and eggs, and the means of keeping their homes and bodies clean and healthful. Among these was an Emulsion of Kerosene, which had many uses, among them the application as a pesticide on both plants and animals, for the reduction of “lice, red spiders, scales, and mealy bugs”. Thus farmers large and small could obtain all that they needed for the raising of chicks and the production of eggs from a single source, with prices for the live chicks dependent on the lot size of the order. It could be as little as $.12 per chick.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Ladies safety belt for sale. Wikimedia.

4. Sears sold ladies “safety” belts well into the twentieth century

The safety belts in the 1908 Sears catalog and in many other years were marketed for and to ladies, sold (in 1908) for thirteen cents (plus two cents postage if shipped by mail) and had nothing whatsoever to do with safety. Sears claimed the belts were “easy and convenient” and recommended that customers order them one size larger than their actual waist measurement. The belts were offered in sizes ranging from 22 to 36, and the customer could order the belt in any color they wished as long as their wish was for white. The safety the belts offered was the same as similar belts which dated to medieval times – the chastity belt.

Although the story of the knights off to fight in the crusades – and thus away from their lady for years – equipping them with chastity belts is a modern myth (scholars date the use of chastity belts to the fifteenth century) there is no denying their existence. By the nineteenth century, they were an accepted medical device prescribed for the purpose of preventing self-stimulation, as it were. The device became so widely accepted that as late as the 1930s the United States Patent Office accepted applications for patents on new designs. They were never intended to be worn for extended periods of time as legend suggests, as numerous infections and other issues would be the inevitable result. Up to the 1930s physicians and moralists recommended their use to prevent what was considered an unhealthy activity, which led to mental and physical disorders.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Lumber within a Sears house shows the stamp which allowed it to be identified and installed correctly while assembling the house. Wikimedia

5. Sears sold houses, which led to their entry into the financial markets

Beginning in 1908 and continuing until 1940, it was possible to order a house from the Sears catalog, with the disassembled house delivered to the purchaser’s lot. Over the course of Sears’ participation in the housing market, they offered over 370 different designs, in a wide variety of sizes and styles, which included all or most of the modern conveniences which evolved with the twentieth century. Nor was Sears the only company to offer homes by catalog sales, several others, including Sears’ competitor Montgomery Ward (Wardway) entered the business. Most of the home kits included heating and lighting systems, as well as all the necessary supplies to plumb them, including connections to water and where applicable sewage lines.

The kits were designed to be delivered by rail to a site as near to the new owner as possible and trucked or carted from there to the building site. Sears eventually offered building assistance where necessary, often through the hiring of local contractors, and several contractors purchased the kits and built the houses before offering them for sale. On most of their homes, Sears did not offer the cement and concrete necessary for foundations, nor finishing brick. They did offer financing to qualified owners of lots on which the house was to be erected, with terms ranging from five to fifteen years beginning in 1912. The Great Depression led to many defaults and nearly bankrupted the company, leading them to drop offering mortgages in 1934.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Sears houses in the Standard Addition, Carlinville, Illinois.

6 Sears homes were a foundation of some company towns

In 1918 the Standard Oil Company turned to the Sears Catalog, ordering eight different models of homes to be built to house mineworkers. The houses were built in a new section of the town of Carlinville, Illinois, which became known as the Standard Addition. The exact number of homes purchased is uncertain due to the destruction of Sears’ records decades later, but 149 of the houses were still standing in 2016, most of them contiguous with each other. Standard Oil spent approximately $1 million on the houses and their construction, which was completed in 1919. Other communities with large concentrations of Sears homes include Washington DC (300), Cincinnati, Ohio (more than 450 in Cincinnati and nearby Covington, Kentucky) and Elgin, Illinois (213).

A large number of kit house companies arose from the market created by Sears as competitors saw the demand for such houses increase. Regional companies were often able to offer lower prices than Sears because of the savings on shipping costs. Walt Disney and his brother built kit houses, sold to them by Pacific Ready Cut Homes, in the neighborhood of Silver Lake in Los Angeles. To defray costs and to pass the savings on to their customers, Sears offered home plans, with some of the materials supplied by Sears (such as plumbing, electrical, heating, etc.) and items available locally such as lumber purchased separately by the homebuyer. This allowed Sears the ability to save on shipping from its own lumber mills, which were frequently distant from the building site.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Firearms and accessories were long a staple of Sears, Montgomery Ward’s, and other mail order catalogs. Ancestry

7. Rifles by mail was a Sears product line for decades

Well into the 1970s the Sears catalog featured an extensive line of rifles, shotguns, and scopes, from leading manufacturers which included Remington, Winchester, Marlin, Browning, and others. Sears also offered their own brand of long guns endorsed by former baseball star and noted outdoorsman Ted Williams. The Ted Williams brand extended to other outdoor and sporting equipment sold by Sears, including fishing and camping gear, other hunting equipment, outdoor clothes, duck blinds, canoes, fishing boats, sleeping bags, and more. Sears offered their weapons for sale both in stores and in their catalogs, which by the 1960s were called their annual Wish Books.

Sears was certainly not alone in the marketing and sale of rifles and shotguns via their catalogs. Competitor Montgomery Ward also sold weapons from leading manufacturers as well as marketing their its line under the brand name Western Fields. Both retailers advertised their gun product lines in other publications besides their respective catalogs. An advertisement in Boys’ Life – the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America at the time – in the 1960s ran which proclaimed a gun for every member of the family, including an air-powered BB gun for the youngest, and a Ted Williams shotgun for Dad. Catalog sales of guns by Sears, Montgomery Ward. J. C. Penney’s and others continued until the late 1980s, when the retailers bowed to increased public pressure for the sales to stop.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
The Sears Christmas Catalog became a reference guide for the creation of lists of wants for Santa and parents. Pinterest

8. Sears introduced the Christmas catalog in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression

Until 1933 the Sears catalog, known as the Big Book, was released early in the year, with seasonal editions following, and contained all of the products and services in Sears vast inventory. That year the company released its first annual Christmas catalog, which by the 1960s was officially labeled the Wish Book. The smaller Wish Book was specifically aimed at the Christmas gift market, preparations for the holiday and the winter, and of course children. The toy section and game section aimed at children took up a sizable portion of the catalog, and the Wish Book did not include all of the products aimed at farmers and homeowners which Sears sold throughout the year.

In the 1970 Wish Book Sears offered, among the chemistry sets and microscope slides, both of which were popular playthings for children once upon a time, specimens preserved in “harmless, non-toxic fluid” for dissection by the child receiving them as a gift. Grasshoppers, crayfish, and frogs were all offered in jars, ready for an eager anatomy buff to cut into them. For practice before cutting into the real thing, a plastic replica frog with complete anatomy was offered separately, which also presented the advantage of being able to dissect it over and over again as the mood struck. Sears of course also offered the necessary dissecting tools to stimulate the curiosity of future surgeons and embalmers everywhere.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Purchasers of Sears kit homes such as this one – called the Magnolia – could also buy private electrical generating plants to power them. Wikimedia

9. Sears sold privately owned electrical generation and distribution plants

During the early years of the twentieth century, the push to electrify America’s towns and cities was on, with Tesla and Edison having emerged from the War of the Currents with the AC system supported by Tesla and Westinghouse the clear winner. The cities were of course the first to benefit from the emerging power distribution grids, followed by nearby communities which eventually became part of the metropolitan areas as the suburbs pushed out to absorb them. In many cases, the rural areas lagged behind, as it was not yet profitable to stretch the existing grids out that far, to the more remote farming, ranching, logging, and mining communities, even in the eastern states of Appalachia. The marketing gurus at Sears recognized the lapse as an opportunity for the company.

Sears had always kept an eye on the rural communities since they were often not supported by stores other than small general stores (which were good customers in most cases) and occasional implement suppliers and dealers, another strong customer base. In 1914 Sears began selling through their catalog of private electrical generating plants. Sold as Electric Lighting Plants, they were designed to provide electricity to isolated rural homes and farms. The Sears Electric Lighting Plants were the precursors of modern-day portable generators, which are used to provide emergency electrical power when regular power is disrupted by weather or some other extraordinary event. Before America entered World War I farmers in the most remote areas had the option of providing their homes’ electricity on their own.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Not only could drugs like cocaine and heroin be purchased from catalogs, they could be shipped in the US Mail – legally. Sears

10. Sears was a drug dealer of cocaine, heroin, and morphine through its stores and catalog

Before the sale of drugs and foods was regulated by the government, Sears and other retailers did a brisk business in the sale of patent medicines and other items which contained liberal amounts of what are now referred to as controlled substances. Patent medicines were marketed as both cures – panaceas for a diverse number of complaints – and as preventative tonics, which aided digestion, provided sound sleep, eased anxiety, and stimulated appetite. Nearly all contained various amounts of narcotics. Sears marketed a Peruvian Wine of Coca, which “sustains and refreshes both the body and the brain” according to its catalog description, “taken at any time with perfect safety”.

Coca wine was not the only means by which Sears sold the drug, as well as others. It was possible to order from the Sears catalog cocaine, morphine, and heroin, packaged with a syringe for use by the purchaser. Since all three drugs could be purchased openly from apothecaries and chemists, as well as from doctors, presumably Sears carried the narcotics in their catalog once again for the benefit of their more remote customers who did not have ready access to the conveniences of urban living. Most of the patent medicines and tonics which contained cocaine did not survive the need to rewrite their recipes in order to comply with changes to the law, though a few, including Coca-Cola and some cough syrups did, and are marketed still.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
The application of arsenic to the skin for prolonged periods understandably led to a pale complexion. Sears

11. Sears sold wafers designed to transfer arsenic to the wearer through the pores

In the 1890s and early 1900s a pale complexion, almost to the point of a transparent whiteness, was the desire of fashionable young ladies and the girls who emulated them. Parasols and enormous hats were two of the weapons wielded everywhere to achieve the look of having been shielded from the sun for all time. Various pastes and creams were also concocted by chemists to help the ladies in their pursuit of paleness to the point of a near cadaverous-looking lack of color. Among the ingredients which helped achieve the effect was arsenic. Arsenic was but one of the toxic chemicals ladies slathered on their skin to achieve fashionable beauty, both mercury and lead, toxic metals, were contained in cosmetics.

Sears sold through their catalog a wide variety of cosmetics and other beauty preparations, including a product which was known as Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Sears promised its customers that the product was perfectly harmless when used as directed, by applying the wafers to the skin. “Ladies, you can be beautiful”, promised the catalog. The wafers undoubtedly did cause paleness, as well as the condition known at the time as the vapors, as the toxic arsenic was absorbed into the skin and built up in the body, creating symptoms such as headache, confused thinking, fainting, fatigue, and many other conditions which in the day were considered female complaints, treatable with such things as cocaine based tonics and other elixirs.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
A stereo optic card depicting the Montgomery Ward building in Chicago. Ward’s preceded Sears, but was eventually surpassed by its younger competitor. Wikimedia

12. Sears was not the only mail-order company to offer somewhat strange products to its customers

It can be argued that the Sears catalog was the most famous in America during its heyday, though in fact Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalog preceded it and for a long time outsold Sears. Other catalogs emerged from the success of the two, and by the 1940s nearly all major department stores issued annual and seasonal catalogs. As the automotive business grew, and more and more Americans learned that they liked to work on and modify their own cars, mail order businesses emerged to accommodate them. One of them was J. C. Whitney, which began supporting car owners in 1915. Over the years it has advertised its own share of bizarre products, including an in-car coffee percolator in the 1960s.

Resembling an old-fashioned stove top percolator, which is emulated, the coffee maker could brew up to four cups of coffee and come complete with four cups and containers to hold cream and sugar, though how the driver was to avail himself of this modern miracle was not explained. Obviously, the coffee needed to be set up before one was on one’s way, but the difficulty of pouring out a cup of joe, adding cream and sugar to taste, and then sipping away from the lidless cup is likely the reason the automotive percolator never percolated to the top of the sales charts. Marketed in the catalog in the early 1960s, the percolator sold for about seventeen bucks, almost $150 in 2018 dollars.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Sears sold scooters and motorcycles under the Allstate brand name for many years. They also sold insurance through the Allstate name. Wikipedia

13. Sears sold several types of motor vehicles under the Allstate brand

From 1948 until 1966 Sears sold a wide variety of vehicles, many of them scooters, under the brand name Allstate, now associated solely with the insurance company which continues to operate, one of the largest in the United States. From 1948 to 1958 several models of scooters manufactured by Cushman were available in Sears catalogs and on the floors of larger stores. Beginning in 1951, they also sold a series of larger and more powerful scooters manufactured by Piaggio, the Italian manufacturer of the Vespa. The Sears models were all essentially Vespas though sold as Allstate until the last two years of availability when they were branded as Sears. Sears sold additional scooters and mopeds badged Allstate that were manufactured by Puch, and motorcycles made by Gilera, though carrying the Sears name.

They also sold automobiles, which could be ordered through the catalog, from 1951-1954 under the Allstate name. The car came in two models, the Allstate Deluxe, a six-cylinder which was a copy of the Kaiser Henry J and which was manufactured at Kaiser’s Willow Run factory. A four-cylinder version was also available. Sears did not offer trade-ins when selling the car, and the majority of Allstates sold were built after the order was received by the Kaiser plant, rather than creating an inventory held within the stores and warehouses. In two years less than 2,400 of the cars were built and the company abandoned the product line. It retained the Allstate name for a time for many of its automotive products, including Allstate tires and automobile batteries, both of which also sold in the catalog.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Although comic books weren’t catalogs they offered mail order opportunities for kids to spend their allowances. Collector’s Weekly

14. Sea monkeys and X-ray vision glasses were available via mail-order

Although they weren’t what would be considered catalogs, comic books in the 1950s and 1960s were famous for advertisements for mail-order products which caught the eye of the readers of Superman, Archie and his friends, and the other denizens of comics. Often they appeared near the center of the book, as a sort of commercial break between stories, and sometimes they were relegated to the back. All sorts of strange and wonderful items could be ordered which couldn’t be found in neighborhood stores. Sea Monkeys, a type of brine shrimp which came to life when hydrated were marketed in the ads as appearing almost human, a trait which they sadly did not exhibit when they came to life once having arrived in the mail.

X-Ray specs were advertised with the male wearer of the glasses discreetly eyeing a passing girl, allegedly able to see through the clothes, or in an image which showed him clearly see the bones of his hand. The opportunity to make oneself more attractive to members of the fairer sex having thus vetted them was provided by the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension training course often presented on the same page. A Polaris nuclear submarine over seven feet long and able to seat two intrepid submariners cost almost seven bucks was made of cardboard, and which if left outside would dissolve in the rain, not a promising feature for a submarine. A frontier cabin, advertised with a coonskin cap-wearing kid sitting outside a log cabin, proved to be a painted plastic sheet which sort of resembled a cabin should a means be found of holding it up.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Marketed as a cure for a variety of ills, the alternating current electric belt was an early antidote for what later became known as ED. Wikimedia

15. Sears had a product for male sexual dysfunction too

One can imagine a sturdy American farmer on a cold winter’s night poring over his Sears catalog by lamplight unless he had purchased the Electric Plant offered by the catalog, and stumbling upon the solution to another problem. Masked in terms such as virility and manliness was a modern solution to the eternal problem of male impotence and/or what has become known as ED, for erectile dysfunction. According to the advertisement, the solution was in the form of a belt, powered with electricity, which applied voltages in a form of shock therapy, applied to parts of the body which simply put are not designed by nature to endure electrical shock or any other form of traumatic shock for that matter.

The belt was said to be beneficial to women as well, perhaps an advertising scheme contrived to make it easier for the man of the house to justify the purchase. In fact, the belt did nothing but provide a stream of mild current, which was adjustable by the wearer, and claimed to be superior in the treatment of all “weaknesses” affecting men and most in women. The 80 gauge current, which means nothing as current is measured in amperes rather than gauges, was touted throughout the catalog listing as a panacea for male woes, and the belt could be purchased for $18.00 in 1908, which is equivalent to almost $500 in current dollars, no pun intended.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
The Sears catalog offered a full supermarket’s complement of groceries long before there were supermarkets. History on the net

16. The Sears catalog offered groceries for decades

Beginning in 1896 the Sears catalog offered groceries, both in bulk and in smaller orders to its catalog customers. Most products offered by the company included flour and sugar, canned vegetables and meat, soft drinks, flavorings, spices and herbs, prepackaged foods such as cakes and cookies, and virtually everything which would be available in a well-stocked store was available under the common brand name Montclair. Other items, such as dried beans, lentils, peas, grains, and cereals, were listed without branding. Emerging national brands were also available, and as more and more processed foods became available for consumers to purchase in stores they were listed in the Sears catalog, which was issued seasonally with prices guaranteed until the next issue appeared.

In 1915 a five-pound bag of dried red beans could be purchased from the Sears catalog for 39 cents. A five-pound bag of Montclair Evaporated Sweet Corn cost fifty-two cents and was prepared by the consumer by simply soaking the corn kernels in water, though it could be eaten as it was if preferred. The grocery section included soaps for laundry, dishes, and body, as well as starch for cooking and for stiffening shirts and other clothing. Dried, pickled, and canned fish of all varieties was a popular item in the catalog, especially New England codfish, and offered in several styles, sold to consumers far from the salt water of Massachusetts Bay. Canned tuna and other fishes, including lobster, found a home in the Sears catalog in the days before supermarkets became the means of people purchasing the bulk of their food.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Catalogs were long on advertising copy intended to sway the consumer.

17. Catalogs gave birth to creative advertising copy

Montgomery Ward was the first of the mail order catalog giants, and it was the success of the operation observed at a railway station by Richard Warren Sears which led to the creation of the Sears company in competition. The competing catalogs soon employed leading illustrators and writers for the product descriptions of the wares offered, and creative writing which could only be described as misleading was a feature of both companies, as well as other competitors. It was an unregulated age. In one Ward’s description, a sewing machine was offered for the price of just one dollar, in an ad which was illustrated with a depiction of a perfectly sewn hem. The product was actually a sewing needle and a spool of thread.

Both companies eventually found the catalog business to be secondary to their brick and mortar stores which anchored suburban shopping centers and malls. By 1985 the mail order business was a small part of the business model for both chains and the catalogs became more advertising for the merchandise offered on the sales floors of the stores. Virtually everything available in the catalogs was available in the store, or could be ordered by the store more readily than by the customer. The stores also offered the advantage of comparative pricing of similar products and easier returns. Still, the catalogs remained popular, though not cost-effective for either chain by the 1980s.

The Most Unexpected Items People Used to Buy via Catalog
Always popular with children because of the huge selection of toys, the Sears catalog came to an end in the 1990s. Alamy

18. The Sears catalog came to an end in 1993

In 1993 Sears discontinued the catalog after 97 years of constant changes with each edition. Ward’s had discontinued their catalog eight years earlier. By then it was no longer possible to order live chicks for raising, nor horses and ponies, which had long been staples of the catalog. The many changes of the years had done away with the patent medicines and tonics, though the cosmetics section remained large to the end, and a significant part of the Christmas catalog, known as the Wish Book. Rifles and shotguns were gone, and name brands such as Land’s End, North Face, and Levis Strauss had joined the Sears-branded items. Some Sears’ brands had become iconic, such as DieHard, Kenmore, and Craftsmen, symbols of quality and of American-made products.

The Christmas Wish Book continued on, though shrinking annually. Still, in some ways, Sears’ roots as a mail order house remain in place, with the catalog transferred to online shopping and delivery either directly to the home or to a Sears store for pickup. Other retailers have done the same, with some online catalogs dedicated to the strange and unusual items which can’t be found elsewhere. Many of the products they offer can be considered strange, or perhaps oddities may be a better word, but it is difficult to find such a bizarre diversity of products as those offered by Sears, Montgomery Ward, Spiegel, and the other great catalog mail order retailers of the past. Not even Amazon or eBay offer a drinkable Spirits of Turpentine, intended to kill internal parasites at the turn of the twentieth century, but perhaps someday in the future a commonly used product today will be viewed with similar bemusement.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“When the Sears Catalog Sold Everything from Houses to Hubcaps”. SARAH PRUITT. History. Online

“Sears Sold 75,000 DIY Mail Order Homes Between 1908 and 1939, and Transformed American Life”. Open Culture. October 29th, 2018. Online

“Princess Bust Developer and Bust Cream or Food”. 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalog. Online

“Treasury of Early American Automobiles 1877-1925”. Floyd Clymer. 1950

“Ladies Safety Belts”. 1908 Sears Roebuck Catalog. Online

“The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth Making Process”. Albrecht Classen. 2007

“What is a Sears Modern Home?” Sears Archives. 2018. Online

“The Sears House was the American Dream that Came in a Box”. Regina Cole, Forbes Magazine. October 23, 2018

“Firearms”. Sears Archives. 2018. Online

“How Sears changed America”. Chris Isidore. CNN Business. Online.

“History of the Sears Catalog”. Sears Archives. 2018. Online

“Shaping an American Institution“. James C. Worthy. 1984

“Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers”. 1902 Sears Roebuck Catalog. Online

“The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975”. John Gunnell, ed. 2002

“Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Spex: Collecting the Bizarre Stuff Sold in the Back of Comic Books”. Lisa Hix, Collectors Weekly. April 18, 2012

“Heidelberg Alternating Current Electric Belt”. Museum of Quackery. Online

“Montgomery Ward Issues the First Mail Order Catalogue for the General Public”. History of Information.

“Narrative History of Sears”. Sears Archives. 2018. Online

“Chronology of the Sears Catalog”. Sears Archives. 2018. Online

“Quirky Catalogs. Unique, kitschy, and awesome mail order catalogs!” Quirky catalogs. 2018. Online

“Long before Amazon, Sears taught Americans to trust shopping from home”. DAVID LAZARUS. LA Times.