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original sears catalog cover

Technology Throwback Thursday: A time before Amazon Prime

September 03, 2015
By Alexander Lucas

Amazon is considered the most valuable North American retailer, internationally second only to online retailer, and now direct competitor, Alibaba. The New York Times recently published an article about the workplace culture inside of Amazon.

While plenty of other articles have tirelessly debated the effects and morality of unbalanced worker culture, I thought more about the history of mail order companies.* While Amazon is barely two decades old and the World Wide Web a quarter-century old, the history of buying items without stepping foot in a store dates back nearly five centuries.

Venetian catalogue

The oldest reference to mail orders is to a book publisher from Venice. In 1498 (yes, six years after Columbus set sail), Aldus Manutius began printing a catalogue of the books “that could be held in the hand and learned by heart.” While I can’t find any direct reference to this catalog being used for mail orders, it is considered to be the first published catalog of wares.

Typography nerds may recognize Manutius’ name. He is the first to use italics, use a semicolon and to publish the font now known as Bembo. He also created the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a stunningly beautiful text but also difficult to read. His books are also considered to be the precursor to the paperback.

So like Amazon’s roots, the roots of the mail order business are found in books.

First true mail orders

There are two claims to the first mail order catalogs from the mid-19th century: Tiffany & Co and the Royal Welsh Warehouse.

Tiffany & Co published its first Blue Book catalogue in 1845, then known as the The Catalogue of Useful and Fancy Articles. While the Blue Book now contains some of the rarest cut stones and jewelry, the original catalog also contained items like horse whips and sugarplums. Like many of the previous mailed catalogs, however, I can find no confirmation that you could directly purchase anything from the catalog by mail. It may be this was simply another example of direct mail marketing.

Pryce Jones of the Royal Welsh Warehouse definitely did have a mail order business. Upon taking over the business in 1956, Jones began to expand his local flannel market by taking advantage of expanded railway service and the establishment of a national post service. In 1861, he began distributing catalogs, some of which contained actual fabric samples within them. He then would send the items out by railroad, ensuring people even in rural locations could get his goods.

His business eventually expanded outside of the UK. Among other things, Jones is also credited with creating the first sleeping bag, known as the Euklisia Rug.

Modern mail order catalog

The modern mail order business can be traced more definitively to a Midwestern traveling salesman, Aaron Montgomery Ward. Having seen that farmers wanted city products but paid a premium due to middlemen, Ward set up a business that could sell directly by mail and rail.

Ward’s first catalog, mailed in 1872, was a one-page price list of less than 200 items. Because of his lower prices and variety of wares, Ward's business grew rapidly. Two years later his catalog had grown to 32 pages and included color illustrations and woodcuts.

Within two decades, Ward’s Wish Book would be copied and improved upon by another young Chicago company: Sears, Roebuck & Co. Neither Sears nor Montgomery Ward had a physical store until the mid-1920s, expanding rapidly only on the mail-order business. These catalogs then both lasted over a century; Montgomery Ward ending in 1985, Sears ending their Big Book in 1993.

Montgomery Ward has since gone bankrupt, though its brand lived on at for an unrelated online retailer. Sears still operates some 1,700 stores including its Kmart stores and is considered the 18th largest retailer in the U.S., despite decreasing profits and store closings over the last decade.

Do you remember shopping by catalog (or do you still do it)? Do you think there is a future for the direct-mail catalog?  Leave a comment below! 

Previous tech throwback articles

Past words on passwords

IT: Then and Now

Full List of #tbtech (All our Tech Throwback Thursdays)

* The first thing I found out was that the day I wrote this was National Mail Order Catalog Day (August 18).

A self-styled storyteller, Alexander Lucas loves to share his vast knowledge of tech, innovation and design trivia. TEKsystems’ resident video designer is also an avid history buff and writes about technology innovation through time.

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