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Shopping by Mail: The History of a Thanksgiving Tradition

Canadians have already celebrated Thanksgiving and Americans will be sitting around the table with family and friends soon.

How do you like to do your holiday shopping? Many of us prefer to do it in the comfort of our home. Thought I would investigate the history of shopping by mail.wishbook16

Mail order is buying goods or services through a merchant by a remote method and then receiving delivery of these goods from the merchant. A mail order catalog is a listing of goods available from a particular merchant called a cataloger. The catalog is produced in a fashion similar to a magazine and then delivered to customers via the postal service or the internet.

aaronmontgomeryIn the U.S. The Tiffany Blue Book was the first mail order catalog produced in 1845. A few years later in 1872, an enterprising entrepreneur named Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago purchased merchandise and then resold it directly to his customers, cutting out the middleman and slashing his prices. His very first catalog consisted of one 8 x 12 inch page listing his merchandise with ordering instructions. His business continued to grow; in the 1920’s and 1930’s he even sold prefabricated house kits called Ward-way homes.

In 1888 Richard Warren Sears started his catalog business in Minnesota. Six years later his catalog had grown to 322 pages including items such as sewing machines, sporting goods, bicycles and automobiles. In 1895 clothing manufacturer Julius Rosenwald partnered with Sears to make the business more efficient and economical. Dolls, refrigerators, stoves, and groceries were added to their inventory. Within a few years time, the Sears catalog became known as a “Consumer’s Bible.” By 1933 the famous “Sears Wish Book” containing toys and Christmas gifts as a separate edition from the regular catalog appeared. Sears did not fail to capitalize on the housing market. As 1940 dawned, Sears had sold 70 to 75,000 house kits; many of these houses are still standing today.

Another famous cataloger began in a different way. J.C. Penny opened a retail store first. Later on, in 1963, he launched a mail-order catalog which made their store merchandise available to the public in rural areas in at least eight states. Four years later in 1967, Lester Wunderman coined the term “direct marketing.” Lester invented the toll free 1 800 system as well as customer loyalty programs like, magazine subscription clubs, Columbia Record Club, and the American Express Rewards Program.jcpenny

In the twenty-first century widespread internet access is rapidly becoming the preferred method of shopping by mail. This form of mail order is frequently referred to as online shopping or e commerce.
But the only shopping difference lies in the way the product is ordered, which is by computer instead of by phone or a mail order form. Most traditional mail order companies now also sell online through their own website. The high costs of printing and postage is forcing some of the mail order companies to stop printing catalogs and rely solely on online sales. Still there are many customers who prefer browsing through those colorful catalogs before hitting the keyboard.

No doubt technology will continue to provide more options for our holiday gift shopping. Just a reminder—procrastinators you only have a few weeks left, get out there and shop till you drop!

I wish all my friends a Happy Thanksgiving and holiday shopping season.

Barbara Ann Mojica
LittleMissHistory.com

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