Catalog Shopping

by Willa Condy

Ben Franklin is remembered for so many great ideas and sayings. One of his inventions had a lasting impact for shoppers. That is the catalog.


Catalogs date back to Aldus Pius Manutius in Venice, 1498. Manutius printed a catalogue of available book titles that his company printed
You could say the idea of catalogue’s found fertile ground in 1667 with English gardener William Lucas, published a catalog with seed prices for his customers. The idea caught on and in the colonies William Prince of the Prince Nurseries published a catalog of fruit trees in 1771.


Ben Franklin was canny enough to take the idea of a catalogue and improve on it. Franklin was the first to offer mail order shopping by listing the books he had for sale in 1774 and allowing for people to send their orders with their cash to him.

Montgomery Ward brought the idea of catalogue shopping to the masses in 1874 when they launched their catalogue on August 18th, 1874. The impact of that catalogue still resonates and National Mail Order Catalog Day is still celebrated on August 18th.


By 1904, 3,000,000 customers were on the mailing list for Montgomery Ward.


Catalog sales caught on. In1894 Richard Sears published the first Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. On the cover of one of their earliest catalogs he declared Sears the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth”.


In 1933 Sears came out with a very special catalog for Christmas. It was a book of dreams, where children dreamed of toys and adults planned their purchases.


Canada also had their catalogs and Timothy Eaton released Eaton’s first catalog in 1884. It was a small, pink, 32-page catalogue listing items and prices and distributed it to visitors at the Industrial Exhibition (now known as the Canadian National Exhibition) in Toronto. The next spring, a 6-page flyer announced Timothy Eaton’s new mail order department.


By 1896, Eaton’s mail order department was sending out 135,000 parcels by post and almost 74,000 by express. Simpson Sear’s started their catalog sales in Canada ten years later and Eaton’s had a good handle on their customer base by then.

With the opening up of the west in both the US and Canada catalogs gave rural shoppers a chance to purchase items through the mail.


The catalogs also played different roles than just shopping. For many immigrants the catalog provided a way to learn how to read English by puzzling out the words from the illustrations. Some school teachers on the prairie used the catalog as a primer for their students as a cheap text book.


Generations of children grew up cutting out and making their own paper dolls from the catalogs. Boys used the catalogs as padding for playing hockey. Women would wait for their newest catalog and use the illustrations of the fashions as inspiration and create their own patterns to sew clothes for their families.


The catalog would end up doing double duty as reading material in the outhouse as well as doubling as toilet paper.

Up into the 1980s catalogs remained as a source for many companies of showcasing their goods. With the arrival of the internet shopping started to change. More shopping was done online and many merchants started changing their stores from having just a physical store to a virtual shopping experience.


Catalogs started to lose their power after 2007. The recession hit in 2008 and many of the catalogs disappeared.


Now many of the catalogs are online. Some catalogs are still printed and mailed out. They allow consumers a chance to decide what they want to buy. A recent poll showed 30% purchased online an item that they had found off line in a catalog. Catalogs actually rate high on items received in the mail, slotting in higher than magazines and newspapers. Although there have been a decrease in catalogs mailed the response from them has increased by 23%.


In 2020 shopping has been changing and 69% of Americans have shopped online. 25% shop online at least once a month. 59% have bought clothes online. Many have eased into online shopping with Amazon. 47% shoppers bought their first online purchase on Amazon.


Many of the earlier iconic catalogs are now just memories for many older Americans who still remember the excitement of Christmas shopping and the fun of opening up the catalog and dreaming of what Christmas might bring.


The type of catalog has changed from print to digital but the ease of shopping from home continues.

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