Lessons From the First Sears Wish Book Catalog


How fan-freaking spectacular is this. I mean, LOOK AT THIS MAGIC.

A page from the first Sears Wish Book catalog published in 1897. Seven hundred and eighty-six glorious pages of… This. The copy is straight wizardry, written by Richard Sears himself.

(Big ups to the internet hero who found and uploaded pages from the original catalog here.)

I started reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson this morning and he talks about how Sears and Roebuck’s began as a mail order catalog company and was an early example of viral marketing.

“Sears was spreading the word among prospective customers with one of the earliest examples of “viral marketing.” In 1905, the company wrote to it’s best customers in Iowa, asking each to distribute twenty-four catalogs among friends and neighbors. These customers sent Sears the names of people who received the catalogs. When those people placed orders, the original customers, in turn, received premiums for their work: a stove, a bicycle, or a sewing machine.”

They had started with watches but quickly expanded into selling anything and everything a rural household or business might need. Instead of having to go to the general store hours away or dealing with middlemen, you could order from a catalog that had literally 1000 times the selection at half the price.

Like, it’s no wonder it took off.

“Thanks to volume buying, to the railroads and post office, and later to rural free delivery and parcel post, it offered a happy alternative to the high-priced retail stores.”

Then came their department stores—27 were opened between 1920 and 1927, which apparently laid the groundwork for the Walmart model—but this is how it started. With a catalog Sears wrote the copy for himself.

I can’t stop smiling. Are you seeing this? Like, really seeing it? Are you imagining what it would be like as a farmer in Iowa to have this thing arrive at your doorstep?

Also, when’s the last time you saw “sanguine” used in a sentence? Just excellent.

It’s at this point most people would offer some sort of analysis or key takeaways, but, I’ve got none of that for you. And I’m certainly not going to get into Sears Canada’s modern day marketing, which includes but is not limited to the slogan WTS “What the Sears.” (I know…)

I just wanted to share something I thought was pretty awesome, in case you find this sort of thing awesome, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about retail lately (do I say that about everything?). Especially what sort of retail models would better serve makers and artists and smaller brands. So for me, that means not just looking around at the world today or what people speculate it’ll look like tomorrow, it means looking way back at what the world used to look like.

So perhaps that’s the takeaway here…

The thing you’re interested in? The business you want to start? Yes, it’s important to be innovative and future focused, but don’t discount the importance of knowing what came before you. How things started. That doesn’t mean you have to repeat it, but there’s always something to be learned, right?

Read. Accept you know way freaking less than you thought you did and that you’ll never have the time to learn all-the-things and that someone will always be smarter than you… and read anyways.

You never know what lights will turn on.

Alright, that’s it for this weeks episode of Kate Finds Cool Shit That Probably Everyone Else Already Knows About But It’s New to Her and She’s Super Jazzed About it So She Shares it Anyways Offering No Personal Perspective or Actionable Insight.

… Thanks for tuning in.

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About the author

Kate Smalley

Kate is a marketer, maker, and freelancer living in Toronto. She works with small businesses to help them narrow in on their purpose, share their ideas, and tell their story.

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