The general purpose catalog increased the selection and decreased the costs of small-town stores that could only afford to carry limited innovatory.
Tiffany’s Blue Book is one of the oldest catalogs, from 1845. There were book, seed, and fabric catalogs in Europe dating back centuries. Ben Franklin created the first US catalog, for scientific instruments. But Montgomery Ward was the first general-purpose catalog.
Ward’s first catalog listed 163 items on one page. By 1874 it had grown to 32 pages, bound into a book. Ward worked for Marshall Field and offered the same unconditional return policy as Marshall Fields.
By 1875 the front page of Ward’s catalog was explicit about the benefits of mail order purchasing:
“We have now, in consequence of liberal patronage, reduced our prices on every article where there was any chance to do so (as you will find by comparing), and have added largely to our list.”1875 Montgomery Ward Catalog
Besides offering items in the catalog, Wards offered to purchase any item and resell it at a five-percent markup. However, there was little need. Ward’s catalog offered everything from straw hats ($.25 each) to genuine mink coats ($22, the most expensive clothing item). There were branded and private label goods, buggies and beds, and mail order alcohol (sold at cost which, for some reason, customers found less “offensive”).
Sears offered their first catalog in 1888, titled “Cheapest Supply House On Earth,” and quickly enlarged the offering. The catalog cost $.50 for paper bound or $1.00 for cloth bound. In contrast, a wooden chair cost $.95 at the time. By 1895 the Sears catalog was 532 pages and offered illustrations.
From the 1910 Sears catalog:
“This business is for the people. Its foundation stone is public service. It’s great growth from a small beginning has been possible only because it brings to nearly five million families their daily necessities, giving to every purchaser some positive advantage – larger assortments from which to choose, newer styles, better qualities, lower prices.
These are the fundamental facts of our business, in proof of which we need offer no evidence other than the pages of this catalog. Our sole arguments in asking for your patronage are the values offered in this book.”
In 1993 Sears discontinued their catalog, announcing “… it frees up the playing field for us to move forward.” In 1994, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.