Inside the 1937 Sears Catalog

One great way to gauge how life was lived in a different time is look at the kinds of clothing and objects they used at the time. For a good look at the US at the end of the great depression leading into World War 2, there’s no better place to look than inside the 1937 Sears catalog. Even in 1943 Sears understood that its catalog was “a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.”

From the Sears Archives website:

The roots of the Sears catalog are as old as the company. In 1888, Richard Sears first used a printed mailer to advertise watches and jewelry. Under the banner “The R.W. Sears Watch Co.” Sears promised his customers that, “we warrant every American watch sold by us, with fair usage, an accurate time keeper for six years – during which time, under our written guarantee we are compelled to keep it in perfect order free of charge.”

The time was right for mail order merchandise. Fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862, America’s westward expansion followed the growth of the railroads. The postal system aided the mail order business by permitting the classification of mail order publications as aids in the dissemination of knowledge entitling these catalogs the postage rate of one cent per pound. The advent of Rural Free Delivery in 1896 also made distribution of the catalog economical.

All this set the stage for the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. A master at slogans and catchy phrases, Richard Sears illustrated the cover of his 1894 catalog declaring it the “Book of Bargains: A Money Saver for Everyone,” and the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth,” claiming that “Our trade reaches around the World.” Sears also knew the importance of keeping customers, boldly stating that “We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer.” He proudly included testimonials from satisfied customers and made every effort to assure the reader that Sears had the lowest prices and best values. This catalog expanded from watches and jewelry, offering merchandise such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing. The 1895 catalog added eyeglasses, including a self-test for “old sight, near sight and astigmatism.” At this time Sears wrote nearly every line appearing in the catalogs drawing upon his personal experience using language and expressions that appealed to his target customers.

In 1896 Richard Sears added a spring and fall catalog and enlarged the size. He also extended an open invitation for all customers to visit the company’s Chicago headquarters. For the first time the company charged for the catalog. Sears tried to mitigate the 25-cent fee by promising to apply the fee to any orders over 10 dollars. Specialty catalogs now appeared covering such items as bicycles, books, clothing, groceries, pianos and organs, and sewing machines. Sears sold the earliest entertainment centers in the form of magic lanterns. These were either a single slide type, or a version called the chromatrope, which showed a succession of slides giving the viewers a motion picture feel.

Sears added a color section in 1897, advertising shoes in black, red and brown. New products included cloth bound books as cheap alternatives to hardbound books, and the Edison Graphophone Talking Machine. Incorporating a new trend, Sears added a “club order program” encouraging customers to combine their orders with friends or neighbors to share in discounts. A Builders Hardware and Material Section appeared; selling everything a customer needed to construct a building. Noting that all men are not equal in size and shape, Sears targeted the extra stout and extra large customer with men’s laundered shirts specifically made for them.

In 1898, he added more specialty catalogs including ones for photographic goods, talking machines, and mixed paints. In the general catalog a color section showed different buggies in red, green, brown, and black with gold or silver trim. He placed the Graphophone in an office setting, and the optigraph moving picture machine appeared. Reflecting current events, the lantern slide collection included shows on the Klondike gold fields, the destruction of the Maine and the Cuban war.

The 1899 catalog featured color images of carpets, furniture, and china. In the photographic supplies section Sears offered “Special Lecture Outfits” giving the purchaser projection equipment, a screen, advertising posters, admission tickets, and a printing outfit, everything an entrepreneur needed to set up a theater for paying customers. The optigraph moving picture equipment worked with either electricity or a system using a gas process to provide illumination. Limes were one of the ingredients used in these gas systems helping coin the phrase “in the lime light.”

The 1903 catalog included the commitment “Your money back if you are not satisfied,” and Richard Sears added a handwritten note to his customers. Always looking to cater to customer needs, Sears employed translators who could “read and write all languages.” He featured new items such as barber chairs, disc graphophones, and basketballs and goals (hoops). The next year he sold the Eveready searchlight and the babygate, and the company announced the opening of the Sears camera factory. The wig department added wigs for African-American men and women. To encourage repeat customers, Sears initiated a program called “customer profit sharing” giving the customer a one-dollar certificate for every dollar spent. By accumulating these certificates the customer could redeem them for specific items.

To get a hands on feel, the 1905 catalog featured full color and texture wallpaper samples, and a swatch of material used in men’s suits. Following this trend, the next year he added paint samples, and in 1908, the last year Richard Sears was associated with the company, he offered both wallpaper and paint color sample books to customers.

In early November 1908, Richard Sears resigned his position at Sears. He guided the company for almost twenty years and now wanted to relax and begin enjoying his life. His legacy lasts in the words, descriptions, and product offerings found in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.

So, let’s go inside and see what we find, shall we?

 

Sears 1937 cover
First up, a page from the Hunting, Fishing and Camping catalog. Bolt-action repeating rifles. It’s hard to tell from such a poor resolution which caliber these are, but as they come with telescopic sights and based on the prices, which may seem cheap to us, but would be quite expensive to a working man at the time, I would guess these are  .308’s.
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Remington Typewriters. Obviously more expensive than a hunting rifle at this time.
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More typewriters from Hermes, Corona and Remington, along with some gifts for children, such as a brief case and school bag, a Shirley Temple Pencil Box (highly doubt Ms. Temple made any money from that) playing cards and men and women’s size (yes, this is a thing) fountain pens.
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Velour, Plaid and Melton wool overcoats.
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Some today might take offense at a page filled with lights and not a single mention of Christmas or any other holiday to be fair, but in 1937 these were marketed simply as “Tree Lights.”
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Demure, yet still figure-hugging swimsuits for women. These came in various colors, though you could only see them in monochrome and had to imagine what they would look like when they arrived.
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“Works like magic – Years ahead of its time.” A toy train operated by vocal commands over a radio? I have to admit I can’t even imagine how this would work.
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Electrically amplified guitars didn’t really come into being until 1931, so it’s understandable that these Supertone examples are so expensive only a few years later.
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Supertone was originally the brand name Sears Roebuck had used to market record players and other sound equipment, but in the fall of 1914, it expanded to include musical instruments. Initially made in partnership with Harmony guitar makers, Sears bought the company and soon they began making “Parlor Guitars” which are smaller than a concert guitar and useful for those learning to play, and were popular in the 1930s among blues and folk players on a budget.
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Here we see some full size “concert” guitars. including “Lone Ranger” and “Gene Autry” models, inspired by the guitar swingin’ cowboy heroes of the silver screen.
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A page of Ladies’ Hats. Veils were coming back into fashion in 1937 and hats were shrinking in width and becoming boxier.
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More women’s hats.
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Post WW1, women were being seen more and more in the workplace, so it’s no surprise that clothing reflected the trend and here we see women being offered the same three-piece suit option as their male co-workers. Of course, they weren’t anywhere in the slightest bit equal in any other way, but hey! Tweed suit.
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Women’s silk slips. Worn under dresses to prevent actual underwear from showing through, silk slips were popular up to WW2, when silk became a highly-prized commodity, and was replaced primarily with Rayon and then post-war with Nylon.

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