Catalog shopping Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The advent of catalog shopping created a new source of revenue and a new business model for marketers and manufacturers, who emphasized to consumers the increased convenience and selection available when ordering products by mail. Catalog outlets contributed to the growth and diversity of American retail businesses.

Benjamin Franklin, BenjaminFranklin is credited with starting the first mail-order business in America. In 1744, he published a catalog featuring scientific and academic materials. Franklin understood that customer satisfaction was the key to repeat business and offered a guarantee: “Those persons who live remote, by sending their orders and money to B. Franklin may depend on the same justice as if present.”Catalog shopping

The early nineteenth century brought changes to the American landscape that encouraged the growth of the mail-order business. The steam engine, steamboat, and railway provided a distribution system that enabled merchandisers to transport goods quickly and efficiently. Newspapers, books, and magazines became cheaper to produce; literacy was on the rise; and the U.S. Post Office (later U.S. Postal Service) expanded into agrarian areas.

By the 1850’s, specialized catalogs were a fixture in provincial households, offering goods that were difficult to find in local stores. Early catalogers included Orvis, which sold fishing tackle; E. Remington & Son, which sold guns and ammunition; and D. M. Ferry, which offered seeds. After the U.S. Civil War, direct mail came into its own. Several factors contributed to this growth: Increased immigration and a higher birthrate swelled the rural population. Catalogs kept farmers up to date on the latest inventions and offered the convenience of purchasing machinery, animals, and seeds through the mail. Finally, postage, manufacturing, and shipping costs declined after the war.

Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck

E. C. Allen of Augusta, Maine, was the first American entrepreneur to offer a general catalog that featured more than a single product line. He mailed more than 500,000 copies in 1871. Allen’s success paved the way for Montgomery Ward, MontgomeryWard to enter the market. During the late 1860’s, farmers formed the Granger movementNational Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry. Ward induced the National Grange to name his company, Montgomery WardMontgomery Ward, the official supply house for the organization. In 1872, he founded what would become the longest continually operating catalog business in the United States by using the network of National Grange halls as a conduit for sales. By 1876, Ward was selling a wide selection of items, including red flannel, jeans, hoop skirts, paper collars, lace curtains, and oilcloth tablecloths.

Ten years later, in 1886, R. W. Sears, R. W.Sears published a specialty catalog that featured watches. His superb salesmanship and persuasive advertising copy captured the attention of consumers. In 1893, Sears, Roebuck and CompanySears, Roebuck and Company issued a general catalog that included a diverse product line, much like Montgomery Ward’s, but Sears’s items were often cheaper. Although the country was suffering a depression, Sears, Roebuck and Company pulled in $400,000 in sales that year. Eventually, Sears became Montgomery Ward’s chief competition. The “catalog war” between the two giant mail-order retailers lasted several decades.

Postal Innovations and Growth Spurts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, two postal improvements further spurred the growth of the catalog industry: Rural free deliveryrural free delivery (RFD) and parcel post. In 1891, Postmaster General John Wanamaker first proposed a rural free delivery system, which was designed to eliminate the need for residents to pick up their mail at the local post office. Instead, carriers delivered letters to roadside boxes. Parcel postParcel post, instituted on January 1, 1913, also offered residents the convenience of having packages delivered directly to their doors.

New catalog businesses proliferated throughout the twentieth century. In 1912, Leon L. Bean, Leon L.Bean founded a mail-order business in Freeport, Maine, and L. L. BeanL. L. Bean grew to become one of the most recognized brands in the catalog industry. Eddie Bauer found similar success on the West Coast with the establishment of his retail store in Seattle, Washington, in 1920, and his catalog business in 1945. Chicago-based clothing retailer Spiegel mailed out its first catalog in 1905.

Two women in Pie Town, New Mexico, order from the Sears Roebuck catalog. People in rural areas especially benefitted from catalog shopping.

(Library of Congress)

Although catalog sales slowed during the Great Depression, the mail-order industry experienced renewed growth during the post-World War II boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s. No longer a staple of farm life, catalogs became popular with the urban and suburban population, as the American economy grew more industrialized and affluent. In this fertile environment, niche catalogs such as Lillian Vernon, a household and fashion accessory retailer established in 1951, thrived.

Technology and the Internet

During the 1980’s, the catalog industry experienced record growth. The use of sophisticated computers and software aided companies in better targeting their customer mailing lists and managing inventory. A greater number of working families and the elderly enjoyed the flexibility of shopping from home. Acceptance of credit cards streamlined the payment process, and the prevalence of toll-free “800” numbers made ordering easy and economical for consumers.

By the early 1990’s, the catalog business had matured and revenues were flat. The arrival of the World Wide Web, however, transformed the industry during the mid-1990’s. Online mail-order companies such as, Cyberian Outpost, and eToys proliferated. Many such companies failed when the dot-com bubble burst, but those left standing proved both lucrative and influential.

The success of Internet;retailersonline catalogs such as prompted traditional catalog houses to develop their own Web sites. Many companies not only mailed their catalogs but also published them online. At first, paper catalogs produced more sales than did Web sites, as the established customer base of paper catalogs did not immediately transition to online sales. Eventually, however, the situation changed. Web browsers became ubiquitous, encryption technology (necessary to safeguard credit card numbers from computer hackers) improved and was more widely trusted, and companies began offering “Web only” specials–specific products or discounted prices that were available only online. As a result, Internet sales caught up with, and in most instances outpaced, those of print catalogs.

The success of the Web catalog in conjunction with search engines such as Google began to transform the retailing landscape, since–unlike print catalogs–Web catalogs are universally and instantly available to anyone with a computer and Internet access. Consumers need not subscribe to or receive a catalog to have access to an online company’s products. They are also able easily to compare a brick-and-mortar retailer’s prices with those of online companies. Thus, the advent of Web catalogs greatly broadened the field within which an individual business must compete to sell its products, making every bookstore, for example, a rival of

Further Reading
  • Gorman, Leon. L. L. Bean: The Making of an American Icon. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006. Written by a former president of L. L. Bean and the grandson of the founder, this authoritative account offers an insider look at the challenges of building and maintaining an iconic brand.
  • Hoge, Cecil C., Sr. The First Hundred Years Are the Toughest: What We Can Learn from the Century of Competition Between Sears and Wards. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1988. Detailed study of the fierce rivalry between the two largest mail-order houses in the United States.
  • Marcus, James. Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Juggernaut. New York: New Press, 2004. Recounts the shaky initial rise of from the point of view of a literary expert who produced and edited reviews for the site.
  • Montgomery, M. R. In Search of L. L. Bean. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. Folksy look at the founder of L. L. Bean, family rivalry, and the societal trends that shaped the company.
  • Weil, Gordon L. Sears, Roebuck, U.S.A. New York: Stein and Day, 1977. History of the company that focuses on the contributions of Richard W. Sears, Julius Rosenwald, and Robert Wood.

Credit card buying

Fuller Brush Company

Home Shopping Network

Montgomery Ward

Online marketing

U.S. Postal Service

Retail trade industry

Sears, Roebuck and Company


Warehouse and discount stores

Categories: History