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GROWING UP IN LAKE PLACID: Remembering the old-time catalogs

November 6, 2009
The season has arrived when my mailbox is overflowing with slick catalogs promoting holiday merchandise. Most of these catalogs soon go to the dump, as the same goods are now sold online.

    How times have changed since I was young. When I was growing up, during the Depression and World War II, catalogs were very important to people who lived in small towns, such as Lake Placid, and in rural settlements where there was little opportunity to purchase needed goods. We depended on catalogs from Sears, Roebuck and Company and Montgomery Ward for the items not available in our small town. The catalogs also served many purposes which had nothing to do with ordering merchandise by mail.

    When Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montomery Ward began publishing catalogs (then spelled catalogues) in the late 1800s, outhouses were still commonplace.  So, when a new version of the catalog arrived each year, the old one was often placed in the outhouse in place of expensive toilet paper. Those catalogs that never made it to an outhouse were treasured by the children.

    I remember how many pleasant hours I spent, cutting out paper dolls from the catalogs, pasting them with homemade paste (flour and water) onto salvaged cardboard. I then dressed them with outfits advertised by Sears or Wards. I also made use of the household sections to furnish cardboard-box doll houses. I expect that the young boys devoured all the ads for wheeled vehicles and dreamed of that special bicycle they might one day own, while parents made use of the old catalogs to raise chairs to the proper height for small children. At one point the Wards catalog weighed four pounds and made a great doorstop.

    Since the first catalog was printed by Montgomery Ward in 1872, the catalogs from Wards and Sears were said to be “mirrors of our times.” The first Sears catalog, published in 1888, was called a “recording for future historians of today’s desires, customs and modes of living.” The industry called it “the Consumers Bible.”

    The Christmas “wish books,” published each year by both Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Montgomery Ward, were much anticipated by children. Sears produced the first of its famous Christmas catalogs, featuring toys and gifts, in 1933. I can remember waiting each day for the mailman to arrive, bearing the catalog, which to me was a special present. During the Depression, for most of the children in the village, a Christmas wish list consisted of one item which we had found advertised in “The Wish Book.” This wish could then be communicated to Santa Claus, in hopes he might bring it in his sleigh on Christmas Eve, along with surprise items to fill our stockings. The rest of our presents would consist of things we actually needed, such as socks, mittens and new winter pajamas from our parents and relatives. In 1939, as a Christmas promotion, a staff copywriter at Montgomery Ward created the character, and the illustrated poem of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” which became a storybook and later, in 1946, a song sung by film star Gene Autry which is still popular today.

    Montgomery Ward started his business in Chicago with two partners and only $1,600 in capital. Their first catalog in 1872 was an 8 by12 inch, single-sheet price list, with 163 articles for sale. (It came with ordering instructions.) Ward’s first serious competition was from Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, who founded Sears Roebuck and Co. and by 1895 had produced a 532 page catalog, which had the largest variety of items that anybody then could have visualized. By 1900, Montgomery Ward had total sales of $8.7 million and Sears sales were $10 million. Sears had moved ahead in the business.

    Both Sears and Wards offered “money back if you are not satisfied.” Sears also introduced a program called “customer profit sharing,” giving out one-dollar certificates for each dollar spent. Customers could redeem accumulated certificates for certain items. This program reminds me of the “Green Stamp Books” we collected when I was a young mother.

    In the early 1900s, you could get almost anything by catalog. Sears Roebuck and Co. between 1908 and 1940 sold more than 70,000 ready-to-assemble houses by mail order.They were a forerunner of the pre-fabs of today. Sears also offered the latest technology and equipment for central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity, although not all of the homes were designed to offer these conveniences. I had the opportunity, a few years ago, to spend time in a Sears catalog house located on the main street in Central Square, N.Y. It belonged to my cousin, Joann Wilson Osborn, and her husband Bill. It was one of the 447 different house models that Sears and Roebuck Co. had offered. It was very solid, well built, comfortable and beautifully decorated by Joann, a designer. “It has long been speculated that former President Richard Nixon’s boyhood home in Yorba Linda, California, was a Sears ready-to-assemble house.


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