Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A Blast from the Past: 1927 Sears, Roebuck Catalog

One of the nice things about going home for the holidays is getting to rediscover old books of my parents', things that used to fascinate me as a kid. Last night I was reading through a great one: a facsimile edition of the 1927 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue. The book was published in 1970, and in some ways, it probably looked stranger to people discovering it then-- the difference between 1970s fashions and 1920s fashions were kind of extreme, especially the hairstyles... but now in the early 21st century, things have sort of swung back the other way, and the people sometimes look surprisingly contemporary.But the prices, of course, do not! Here's a few examples:
Women's Hats: $0.75-2.85
Women's Shoes: $3-5.00 a pair
Dresses for girls age 7-14: $1.98 to $7.98 for all-silk
Sewing Machines: $25-40.00, the more expensive ones including decorative wooden cabinets. Prices went up by a few dollars if you wanted to pay in monthly installments-- hello, easy credit!
Vacuum cleaners: $19.95- $24.95, again payable monthly for a little bit more.
Men's Dress Shirts: $0.95 to $1.89
Man's Overcoat made of Black Dog Fur: $37.50
Car Tires: $5.65-$21.25
7-foot Christmas Tree: $7.98
"Sixteen Unusually Beautiful Fancy Glass Ornaments": $1.00
1 1/2 carat diamond ring: $767.25
Kit to build a 7-room house, including all lumber and hardware: $2,504.00 (4-room houses started at $520)
Furnace (wood or coal burning) $43.50-$133.35

I'd love to run all these prices through my inflation calculator to see what they would equal in today's dollars.

It's also just funny to see some of the things that Sears must have sold a lot of back then-- clothing was of course a major category, and given what Sears has morphed into today, it's not too surprising that they offered a lot of automotive supplies and tools. But back in the 20s, women were still wearing corsets, and various forms of abdominal support seemed to be quite popular: there was a whole page devoted to "Rupture Appliances and Suspensories," followed by another one offering "Abdominal Supporters, Shoulder Braces, and Chamois Vests." The terminology is interesting too: plus-size women were referred to as "stout," couches were called "davenports," and toilets were still "closets."It's also obvious that people made and repaired things themselves more often, and just as a matter of course rather than as a hobby. The sewing machine pages feature not just the machines but lots of parts, as well as fabrics and patterns for clothes.
THey also sold tons of farm equipment, musical instruments, books, toys, radios, phonograph & records, umbrellas, bedding, silverware, perfumes, gravestones, and despite all the car-oriented merchandise, they still sold horse-drawn buggies. As the 1970 introduction points out, our culture of consumption was changing rapidly in the late 20s-- more and more people were able to buy ready-made clothes and labor-saving household appliances, and recreation was becoming ever more important, so although Sears still devoted many pages to farm tools and work boots, sporting equipment and radios had more space in the catalog than only a few years before. But though the items in the catalog paint a portrait of a society enjoying great prosperity and surging into modernity, there were already some shadows of the coming depression: "Sears was already beginning to recognize some of the buying resistance that was to reach depression proportions in the thirties," as prices on identical items were often lower than they had been the previous season.

The book is out of print, but if you can find a copy, snap it up! (Some used ones seem to be available through Amazon.) It's great fun to look at, as seeing what people bought really shows you how they lived.


Anonymous said...

We had a 15 year-old real estate promotional magazine lying around our house for some reason. One day, our landlord was visiting and started looking through it, without realizing that it wasn't current. She was completely mezmerized for a few moments (nearly salivating, actually) with the impossibly low prices. You could see the wheels spinning in her head.

Anonymous said...

I remember going through the Sears snd JC Penney Christmas book(I am 35) picking out all the presents I wanted. Didn't really ever get any of them but it was nice to look at them and read the description and dream of the possibilities. My son who is 13 probably wouldn't know what to do with it. He gets on the computer now days and shows me. Sometimes I wish I/we could go back when things seemed simpler...or at least slower pace !!

Anonymous said...

My grandfather used to buy live chickens from Sears. You may read about my experiences with Sears at:

NewsGirly said...

A lot of those things, except the diamond, house, furnace and tires, you can still get for those prices if you shop at Goodwill or a thrift store. Isn't that amazing? The dog coat you shouldn't be able to get because it's gross and also I think dog-fur items are illegal. I wrote stories about Sears kit homes and they are beautiful, though the closets are microscopic and short (?!). Nice post!