Sears, Roebuck, and Company was the Amazon.com of its day. When it was founded in 1888, Sears was not the department store that we think of today. It was the first-of-its-kind mail order business that sold just about anything you might need for your house.
According to the Sears archive, they started the company as a mail-order watch and jewelry business by Richard Warren Sears. He later partnered with Alvah Curtis Roebuck and rapidly expanded the items sold. By 1895, the company offered merchandise in catalogs containing items “… such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing.” The company did its best to keep up with changing technology, and in 1897 it added a Builders Hardware and Material Section to its catalog, providing “... everything a customer needed to construct a building.”
The 1897 catalog was the first to offer supplies to build houses.
Note the old spelling of catalog on the cover.
Several factors made the timing right for mail-order businesses.
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, encouraging westward expansion. Settlers could receive 160 acres of land for just a small filing fee, and they could own the land if they farmed it for five years. Sears mail-order service brought merchandise to these farmers’ doorsteps.
The postal service helped Sears, Roebuck, and Company by classifying the catalogs as educational materials. This meant that the catalogs could be delivered for just one cent per pound.
In 1896 Rural Free Delivery began, making catalog distribution even more advantageous for mail order companies.
Almost everyone in Blawenburg received a Sears catalog. While they could buy many of the same products at local locations like Van Zandt farm store or the corner store at Blawenburg crossroad, Sears offered items that you might have to travel a great distance to get. Mail-order sales became a viable option for many people just as internet sales have made purchases easier during the pandemic.
Houses by Mail-order
An example of the Sears Modern Homes catalog