A Brief History of
Mail Order Catalogs

The roots of mail order date back to the middle ages. In 1498, Aldus Manutius of Venice, a publisher, brought out a catalog of 15 texts which he had published, which were precursors of the paperback books of today.

Seed and nursery catalogs were in existrance as early as 1667, when Willioam Lucas, an English gardner, mailed a printed price list of available seeds and plants. This phenomena spread to the colonies, where a catalog of fruit trees was published in 1771 by William Princh of Flushing, Long Island.

Benjamin Franklin published a catalog, in 1744, of “near 600 volumes in most faculties and sciences” from the Library Company of Philadelphia. This catalog is remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which is the use of the concept of “satisfaction guaranteed.”

Orvis, still a flourishing mail order company today, was one of several companies that began to sell sporting goods and fishing equipment through the mail in New England in the 1830’s and 40’s. By the end of the Civil War mail order activity had expanded to other parts of the country, and mail order ads were even being carried by some magazines.

But the real beginning of mail order was the result of the experiences of a traveling salesman in the mid west, named Montgomery Ward. He published a catalog sheet that listed 163 items right after the Civil War. Within two years, the catalog grew to 8 pages, and then to 72 pages. By 1884, the catalog contained 240 pages with thousands of items, almost everyone of which was illustrated with a woodcut.

Thus began the modern era of mail order…and perhaps the era of personalization, too. One customer wrote the following in a letter to Montgomery Ward:

“I suppose you wondered why we haven’t ordered anything from you since last Fall. Well, the cow kicked my arm and broke it, and besides my wife was sick, and there was the doctor bill. But now, thank God, that is paid and we are all well again, and we have a fine new baby boy, and please send plush bonnet 29d8007…”

He received a personalized reply expressing regrets about the broken arm, pleasure that the wife had recovered, congratulations on the son and acknowledgement of the order for the bonnet, plus an inquiry as to whether the customer had noticed the anti-cow-kicker shown in the catalog.

Both Montgomery Ward and their competitor, Sears Roebuck, benefited from the post-Civil War industrial growth. In the latter part of the 19th century, catalogs became a dynamic form of direct response marketing. The Sears and Wards catalogs have been called “illustrated encyclopedias of social history.” Mail order, with its policy of presenting a great variety of products at a fair price with service and satisfaction guaranteed, is now a fixture of the American marketplace as well as the American psyche.

For a trip down nostalgia lane, Forest Flanders Web site has a huge collection of scanned catalogs, all kinds of old catalogs in every category. http://forrestflanderscentral.typepad.com/


1. “A History of Direct Marketing,” Nat Ross, Professor of Marketing, New York University, 1985

1989. S.D. Warren Company, A Subsidiary od Scott Paper Company


1918 Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalog from Forrest Flanders collection of scans.


Inside page from 1918 Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalog.


1938 Sears Spring/Summer Catalog.


Simpson's 1918-19 Fall/Winter Catalog.


1979 Johnson Smith's Fun Catalog.


1979 Johnson Smith's Fun Catalog.