Department Stores and Mail-Order Catalogs

The availability of mass-produced consumer goods to the working and middle classes grew in two forms during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with mail-order catalogs meeting the needs of rural Americans and department stores serving metropolitan areas. Crucial to the success of both were concepts of customer service and standard pricing, as well as infrastructure such as railroads and postal service. As the types of merchandise expanded and inventories swelled beyond the service capacities of general stores and dry-goods merchants, several individual entrepreneurs built enterprises that generated iconic brands and shaped the shopping patterns and tastes of the American public.

Montgomery Ward produced the first mail-order catalog in 1872. The Montgomery Ward catalog expanded rapidly, with a listing of 10,000 items by 1883. In 1888, the initial offering of Sears appeared as the R. W. Sears Watch Company. Founder Richard Sears added a partner, Alvah Roebuck, and their first catalog under the name Sears, Roebuck and Co. was distributed in 1892. Both Ward and Sears targeted farmers as their main customers, and both benefited from federal legislation that supported mail delivery to this audience, the rural free delivery implemented in 1896 and the Parcel Post Service in 1913. As both companies were headquartered in Chicago, the proximity to a major hub of nationwide rail lines combined with demand for rural delivery supported the growth of mail order. Besides serving as a tool for ordering items, customers in areas without opportunities for shopping could learn about new products and fashion trends. While Ward's and Sears remained the top companies, smaller specialized mail-order companies such as Burpee Seeds, Caswell-Massey, and L. L. Bean also profited. The J. C. Penney Company was originally established as a department store but released a catalog in 1963 that drove millions in sales. The mail-order companies such as Ward's and Sears ultimately opened department stores of their own. Sears opened its first store in 1925. Montgomery Ward began to open stores in 1926. The Sears catalog was discontinued in 1993 as one large book and was split into specialized interests.

One of the earliest founders of a department store in the United States was Roland H. Macy, who had attempted stores in various locations but found his fifth attempt in 1858, a retail store in Manhattan, to be the foundation of his future success. Macy strictly adhered to his policy of selling at one low fixed price to all customers for cash only. Macy's policy of stated prices for merchandise eliminated the need for price negotiation between shopper and shopkeeper and encouraged shoppers to browse the merchandise. By 1870 Macy's had more than $1 million in sales and a diversified inventory of dry goods, clothing, and decorative items. Searching for a partner to ensure the long term success of the store, Macy created a partnership with L. Straus and Sons, a successful china-importing company. The Straus family operated Macy's for many years and was responsible for building the landmark Macy's building in Herald Square at 24th and Broadway in 1902.

Other major department stores in American cities in the early twentieth century included Marshall Field's of Chicago; Belk's of Charlotte, North Carolina; Wanamaker's of Philadelphia; and the Broadway Department Store in Los Angeles, which was operated by Carter Hawley Hale Stores, Inc. Beyond the offerings of reasonably priced desirable goods, the department store as destination became part of the consumer experience. The 1902 Macy's building featured new technologies such as escalators and customer-friendly lounges and restrooms. Marshall Field's incorporated a tea room and later a restaurant, setting a precedent for department stores to serve food.

In 1877, the Middle West saw the development of the future department store giant the May Company with the firm of May, Holcomb and Dean that formed in Colorado to sell clothing and supplies to miners. When that partnership dissolved, company founder David May joined with Moses Shoenberg. By 1885, May bought out Shoenberg and opened two additional locations in Colorado. David May's approach of marketing merchandise to middle-class buyers combined advertising and fast stock turnover. He later leveraged his approach of gathering large inventories and selling them quickly to buying entire stores. May shrewdly purchased existing department stores in urban areas and merged them, using the buying power of his company to increase inventories. The May Company merged two Missouri stores, Famous Department Store, which it had acquired in 1892, and William Barr Dry Goods, which it bought in 1911, and created Famous-Barr. The May Company continued to purchase existing chains well into the twentieth century, including major stores such as Lord and Taylor, Filene's, and Kaufmann's.

The landscape of rural and urban shopping was changed by the American highway system and the development of suburban shopping centers in the 1950s and 1960s. As the economy of major urban centers declined, many landmark department stores gave way to mall-based presences in suburban areas. In the twenty-first century, print-based catalogs have been diminished by the availability of company websites as well as online mail-order houses such as, a company formed in 1995 as an Internet-based bookseller that now offers an inventory it describes as “Earth's Biggest Selection.”

Rebecca Feind

See also: Leisure ; New Woman ; Railroads ; Women's Trade Union League (WTUL)


Cherry, R. Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail-order Shopping. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

Paquet, L. Urge to Splurge: A Social History of Shopping. Toronto, Canada: ECW Press, 2003.