Looking Back: Shopping—the past and the present

Sears on Main Street in Edmonds during the early 1960s. (Courtesy the Edmonds Historical Museum)

Some changes in my own life inspired me to look at the history of shopping from a different perspective, and to realize that through the years, even though new technology has brought some cosmetic changes, the basics still pretty much remain the same—shopping from home is popular, convenient and sometimes a necessity.

Until May of 2019, I lived in Lynnwood and spent much of my time in Edmonds, my former long-time home. I moved to Alaska to live in a rural area of Anchorage, in a very busy household with my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter Eden. Soon, everything changed, and now Eden is married and she and her husband Noa are starting their own home. It was the days preceding their September 2020 wedding that gave me the idea for this story.

After Eden and her fiancée announced their wedding date, for weeks FedEx and UPS trucks made almost daily trips to our house. Box after box, mostly from Amazon Prime, were delivered at our door, and those boxes began piling up in our dining room. Every available space was covered with wedding gifts which had been ordered online by relatives and friends. Online shopping from home had already become a popular way of life—however, with restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as hunkering down at home, this method of shopping became a necessity. At the present time, the handiness of online shopping seems to be limitless.

Looking back, I could not help but think that the past was not so different. In the late 1800s, the majority of Americans lived in rural areas, mainly on farms. A shopping trip to a distant town was a major event; certainly not something tackled very often, if at all. Yet, the farmers needed to buy equipment and other items for their farms, as well as feed for the animals. No doubt, the ladies of the house wished to keep up with fashion, and also the latest trends in home furnishing, dishes and cookware. Perhaps a new baby in the home meant some special items—maybe a crib or a baby buggy. What an opportunity for the entrepreneurs!

Montgomery Ward

The first major entrepreneur to enter the scene was a man by the name of Aaron Montgomery Ward—the year was 1872. For years, Mr. Ward had worked as a traveling salesman in rural areas. He came to the conclusion that his customers wanted “city goods” and those were not readily available to the country folks. Thus, Mr. Ward came up with the idea of a dry goods mail-order business to operate out of Chicago. In the beginning, people were able to order the merchandise by mail and then pick the items up at the nearest train station.

With this, the mail-order company of Montgomery Ward was born, and people could shop right from home, at their own convenience. The company issued its first catalog in August of 1872.  This catalog was mainly sent to farm cooperatives in the Midwest, and contained only a one-sheet price list with 163 items for sale. As the company’s inventory expanded, so did the market, and the catalogs grew in size. In 1874 Montgomery Ward’s price list covered 32 pages and was bound as an actual catalog. The first to be called the Wish Book, Montgomery Ward’s catalog became a standard feature in rural areas as Americans accepted the concept of shopping from the comfort and convenience of their home. Through the years, with changes in lifestyles as more people became suburb and city dwellers, and also with the growing competition, problems developed. Even so, through all the changes in the industry, Montgomery Ward remained in business for 129 years, until it was liquidated by the end of May 2001.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. 

In 1886, another budding entrepreneur, a competitor by the name of Richard Warren Sears, appeared on the scene. Richard Sears, a Minnesota railway station agent, bought a shipment of gold watches a local jeweler had ordered and then refused to accept. Mr. Sears had the inspiration to start a side business by selling the watches for $14 each. A few months later, having made a tidy amount of money, he quit his railway job and established the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minnesota.

The next year, Sears moved his watch business to Chicago, and when he placed an ad in a newspaper for a partner, watchmaker Alvah Curtis Roebuck joined him in the business. As a partnership, they clicked, and by 1893 their growing company officially became Sears, Roebuck & Co. From its 19th century beginning as a mail-order watch and jewelry business, Sears, as it later became known, grew into an American retail giant.

In 1894, the company’s first general merchandise catalog was distributed. Small in size, and like Montgomery Ward, its early catalogs were mainly keyed to rural America. By the late 1890s, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog contained more than 500 pages of watches, jewelry, shoes, clothing, wagons, farm equipment, fishing tackle, firearms and ammunition, bicycles, furniture, china, musical instruments from mandolins to pianos, and numerous other items—including medical equipment, caskets and even tombstones.

In 1896, groceries were introduced, and in 1941, the grocery line was discontinued. The first color section appeared in the 1897 big catalog—featuring shoes in black, brown and red. The 1897 catalog even advertised pharmaceutical products to cure a plethora of medical problems, from rheumatism to a heart condition—plus bottles of laudanum to help you sleep: Ten cents for a one-ounce bottle, or $1.10 per dozen.  Remember, laudanum contained a trace of opium— approximately 10%.

In the 1908 fall mail-order catalog, the company featured its 1909 Sears Motor Buggy. Priced at $395 for the basic model, it had the look of an actual horseless carriage. During Sears’ few years of marketing, the company sold 3,500 of its Motor Buggies, and published some of the comments from numerous satisfied buyers. According to the company, one man from Ohio reported: “It beats a horse bad, as it don’t eat when I ain’t working it and it stands without hitching, and, best of all, it don’t get scared of automobiles.”

However, Sears soon found that its motorized vehicle cost more to produce than the selling price, and by 1913, the Sears Motor Buggy was discontinued. That same year, the company’s first specialty mail-order catalog for automobiles was introduced.

Of some interest is the fact that in October of 2017, Sotheby’s, the world-famous auction house, offered a rare 1909 Sears Model J Motor Buggy at auction—$35,200 was the final sale price.

From the early 1960s, the Intersection of 5th and Main, looking east up Main Street hill in Edmonds. Safeway was on the northeast corner and the Sears Catalog store was next to Mode-O’Day women’s store. (Photo courtesy Edmonds Historical Museum)

In 1914, in order to provide electricity to rural homes and farms, Sears’ big mail-order catalog listed private electric light plants for sale. In Seattle, that same year, Sears, Roebuck & Co. opened a large mail-order distribution warehouse; only the second one in the country. Located at First and Lander Streets, the distinctive red brick building with its very prominent clock tower became a focal point in south Seattle.

In 1925, in Chicago, the company opened its first retail store. In 1928, Craftsman tools were introduced in the catalog. In 1929, it was Kenmore products—first was the washing machine. In 1930, baby chickens were sold by mail order to a growing number of chicken farmers. It was not unusual to walk into a post office and hear a whole lot of cheeping sounds from the baby chicks as they waited for their owners to pick them up.

In 1931, the catalog, for the first and only time, carried a paid ad for Chevrolet automobiles. That same year, Sears founded Allstate Insurance Company.

1920 Sears Craftsman family home near Green Lake, where the author and her family lives in early 1931-32.

From 1908 through 1940, you could even order a pre-fabricated kit for building your own Sears house—many in the very popular Craftsman style—detailed instructions included. Sears sold over 70,000 of these pre-fab kit houses by mail order. Conveniently, in order to furnish your Sears home, you could find just about anything you could want or need in the pages of the Sears catalogs. Long after the era of the company’s marketing of its kit-houses ended, the unique and timeless Craftsman-style house has remained very popular.

The toys were something children often could only dream about—especially in 1933, during the Great Depression. That year, the first seasonal Sears Wish Book was published for holiday shopping. Through the years, the Wish Books introduced us to Shirley Temple dolls, Lionel electric train sets, Mickey Mouse watches, Radio Flyer wagons, erector sets, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Matchbook cars, Tonka Toys, even a doll named Barbie and her boyfriend Ken, as well as the Cabbage Patch Kids.

In 1940, to make shopping easier, credit was initiated with a Sears Easy-Payment-Plan, and in 1985, Sears introduced the Discover Card.  For many, Sears became their first introduction to a credit history.

In later years, Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward, Gloria Swanson, Susan Dey, Cheryl Tiegs and Stephanie Powers modeled clothing for the ladies in the Big Book. Movie cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, baseball’s Ted Williams, and race car driver Al Unser appeared in the men’s section.

To facilitate ordering through the catalog, in smaller towns, Sears opened catalog stores. Some of you may remember the catalog store in Edmonds located at 518 Main St., just east of the intersection of Main and 5th on the south side of the street—next to the Mode O’Day women’s shop. In the early 1960s photos shown here, notice that Main Street between 5th and 6th had become a one-way street.

In our family, we had both Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs in our home. However, for my parents, Sears seemed to be their favorite for mail-order shopping. And, before we moved to rural Alderwood Manor in 1933, we lived in a 1920 Craftsman-style pre-fab Sears house near Green Lake in Seattle. A few years ago, when I took a picture of our former Seattle home, I found the durable house was still attractive and well-kept.

The author’s 1920s Sears home at 610 Glen St. in Edmonds. (1958 photo)

In 1953, after having lived in Edmonds for many years, my parents bought a previously-owned Sears pre-fab house, shown here in 1958. In 1991, many years after the deaths of my father and mother, I watched as their 1920s classic Sears home at 610 Glen Street was razed to make room for condos. Conveniently, our family home had been located just behind the former Edmonds High School, which is now the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

It was a sad time in 1993 when Sears published its final Big Book. The decline of Sears, the 2018 filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by its holding company, and the liquidation of some of its assets touched the hearts of many old-time mail-order customers.

For historians and genealogists, the Sears catalogs have become books of history, and for those who just want to reminisce a bit, a collection of its historical catalogs are available for viewing.  Check the company’s website at Sears Archives.  The catalogs are also an Ancestry.com feature.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. She is also an honorary member of the Edmonds Cemetery Board.

 

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