Support Local Journalism!        

Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.

FONT & AUDIO

MORE STORIES


That's how Sears Roebuck & Co. described itself in a 1902 catalog filled with cool stuff

SUBMITTED PHOTO - All sorts of medical miracles were for sale in the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog, including this Princess Hair Restorer.Karen Davis, the retired manager of Luscher Farm. David Britton, a retired Sears executive. And a Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog.

How do these dots connect?

I met Britton at the Festival of the Arts this year. Since retiring from Sears in 1999, he has spent his free time designing and creating beautiful birdhouses. But it was his years at Sears that captured my attention, especially after he told me he was an unofficial company historian.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Kits contained in a 1902 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog offered everything you'd need to build a house, other than cement, bricks and plaster.A few months earlier, Davis — an ardent history lover — had found a reproduction of an old 1902 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog and asked if I wanted to borrow it. I was intrigued, but really didn't think there would be much to it. It sat on my shelf until one rainy night, with nothing to do, I decided to browse through it.

And I was absolutely enthralled.

It is almost two inches thick, printed in black ink on newsprint, and its 1,161 pages contain everything you could think of — from fine china and jewelry to tool chests, baby carriages and buggies, furniture and farming implements. There were folding beds, windmills, hay loaders, linens and lingerie, toilets, sinks and sleds, tools and clothing.

One of the headings reads "Special Department of Vapor Bath Cabinets." Another says "Department of Electric Belts." (I will leave that to your imagination.) The only thing Sears didn't sell, apparently, was livestock — although Britton recalls that the company did sell chickens.

Never would I have imagined that reading a Sears catalog would be so entertaining.

The department that really made me rumble with laughter was the Drug Department. Here are just a few of the offerings: Mexican Headache and Neuralgia Cure, sugar-coated Cathartic Pills, Dr. Rose's Arsenic Complexion Wafers, Dr. Hammond's Nerve and Brain Pills, Electric Liniment (to go with the electric belt?) and Reliable Worm Cakes. And then there is White Ribbon Secret Liquor Cure, which apparently was for easing the disease of drunkenness. It was sold by the box of 30 treatments (pills) for $1.10.

Vin Vitae, Wine of Life, sold for 69 cents a bottle and is described as " a new and perfect tonic stimulant for the tired, weak, sick of all classes. A renewer of energy, a stimulant for the fatigued, a strengthener for the weak, an effective and agreeable food for the blood, brain and nerves."

Laughing my way through the pages, I discovered that there were separate catalogs for things like wallpaper and wallpaper samples, or paint samples. For 15 cents a year, you could subscribe to the Sears grocery price list. (Britton told me that one of Sears' grocery mottos was "Give 'em a bigger bunch.")

SUBMITTED PHOTO - DUNISThere was also a specialized catalog that offered kits to build your own house. Now this really grabbed my attention! You could order a kit from a catalog with everything you needed to build a house!

According to Britton, these 'kit' houses were called grandpa houses or backyard houses.

"You built the house in 8-foot sections starting at the bottom," he recalls. "Everything had to be nailed together in a particular order. That order was determined by a numbering system that was stamped on the materials. For example, the joists were all numbered in the left corner. That's how you could determine if the house was a kit purchased from Sears."

He remembers that each house catalog contained a credit application, because Sears was willing to finance the construction of the home, including the carpentry. He says the kit contained everything you needed to complete the house — lighting fixtures, wallpaper and carpeting, to name a few. He says there are two kit houses in Tigard that he knows of, but none in Lake Oswego. Davis concurs, but she did find two in the Willamette area of West Linn.

Besides the catalog, Davis shared a Sears-related story with me. When she and her husband bought their home, the downstairs bathroom was small, very square, had no windows and came with a red countertop. Rather than redo the countertop, Davis went on a hunt for — no, not Red October — wallpaper that would enhance the red in the bathroom.

She found a design that was perfect. It had a vintage look to it — like newsprint — and the pattern was a reproduction of the content of the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog. Davis bought the wallpaper, added some towels and a bit of historic decor. Voila! Bathroom transformed. (Although reproduced to look like a Sears catalog, the wallpaper was not sold by Sears.)

Other entertaining gems: this reproduction has an introduction, like a novel, written by American journalist Cleveland Amory; the cover of the catalog reads "Sears Roebuck and Co., Cheapest Supply House on Earth... The Great Price Maker"; and the publisher's note identifies this as the "bounty edition." It states, "You will notice an occasional running head (not sure what that is) that appears to be cut off. This was caused by bad trimming of the original catalog."

The pages describing how to order, when to expect merchandise, how to make payments, etc., are hilarious. My favorite is, "No order will be accepted for less than 50 cents and must be paid in cash." And last but not least, the index is located in the middle of the catalog, not at the beginning like you would expect.

A marketing tactic forcing customers to peruse 500 pages of goods they just might decide to buy, perhaps?

The History Connection is researched and written by Nancy Dunis. Connect with her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or facebook.com/nancy.dunis.3 to share stories related to this article or dot connections you've made. Watch for her column on the third Thursday of every month in The Review. Sources for this article: 1902 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalogue; interviews with Karen Davis and David Britton.


You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.


Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!

Go to top