Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Before eBay there was Sears, Roebuck

Before there was an Internet, even before telephones and electricity were common in American homes, buying household good could be done from the comfort of your living room. Americans have always loved convenience. The first drive-through restaurant, the first automatic car wash, the first assembly line were all American inventions designed to make like easier and more convenient. Before the nineteenth century rolled out you could buy anything from groceries to houses through the mail, have it guaranteed and on credit. A Sears, Roebuck home ordered through the mail would go for a little more than a $1,000.00 and would be shipped by rail to anywhere in the US. Some of the Sears’ houses still stand, surely a testament to their quality. How many homes built today will be standing in 2120?

Browsing through an 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue is a fascinating glimpse into the past. Into a past where there was no FDA or USDA to set rules on the safety of items sold, even the ones meant to be taken internally. You could buy tinctures of arsenic, belladona, digitalis and of course laudanum, a liquid heroin mixture. Turpentine was sold for internal use. Many of these concoctions were sold as cure-alls for ailments we haven’t even heard of today.

For instance, you could purchase Peruvian Wine of Coca, It was “urgently recommended” for such ailments as cures for anemia, impurity, impoverishment of the Blood, Consumption, weakness of the lungs, asthma, Nervous debility, loss of appetite, Malarial Complaints, Biliousness, Stomach Disorder, Dyspepsia, Languor and fatigue, Obesity, Loss of Forces and Weakness caused by excess and similar Diseases of the same nature. It was especially recommended for persons in delicate health and convalescents.

Or try Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers. Sarsaparilla would cure scrofula tuberculoses. ‘Female pills’ containing one or more abortifacients that carried the warning that they must be taken carefully for female troubles. Many of these compounds were concocted by Sears, Roebuck themselves and came with money back guarantees. The ingredients were never listed in either the catalogue or on the products themselves. No way of knowing what dosage you were getting or ever exactly what was in each potion. It was truly buyer beware in those days.

On a lighter side, you could buy an Electric Washer made of the best Virginia white cedar for $3.50. An Acme Hay Tedder could be had for $21.00. For $19.95 you could purchase the 1897 Encyclopedia Britannica. A Columbus A Grade Canopy Top Park Wagon Surrey went for $79.00 or $76.63 if you sent cash.

Sears, Roebuck offered discounts for cash and encouraged club purchases where several people would send in order together for more discounts. Sears, Roebuck also introduced monthly payments for their pricier objects. To give an idea of what the prices mean, a dollar in 1897 had a consumer price index of $26.70 or a GDP Deflator value of $23.60.

These catalogues are a wonderful glimpse into a different world long gone.

Richard Sears illustrated the cover of his 1894 catalog declaring it the "Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone," and the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth," claiming that "Our trade reaches around the World." Sears also knew the importance of keeping customers, boldly stating that "We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer."

Sears, Roebuck & Co.


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