In 1883, a package of 500 pocket watches was dropped off at the train depot in the watch-fob-sized town of Wolsey, South Dakota.
The local jeweler refused to accept the package, so agent Dick Sears decided to sell them to his depot agent friends up and down the Chicago North Western line.
He later had a catalogue made that was devoted exclusively to watches.
His venture was successful. Soon watches were being sent back to him for repairs. So he hired a 22-year-old watch repairman named Curtis Roebuck.
They later teamed up and produced a more extensive catalogue under the name Sears and Roebuck.
Their 1902 catalogue and a Montgomery Ward wish book published about the same time are classics if you want to study the shrinking American dollar.
For a total of $17, a man could buy an entire outfit: a suit for $11,; underwear, 38 cents; socks and tie, 25 cents each; shirt, 50 cents, gloves, 75 cents; and an all-wool Fedora for 95 cents.
That first catalogue sold 20-cent books on how to win at draw poker and another on how to blend and combined liquor.
There was aluminum “bust developer” for women, and bathing suits that buttoned up to the neck.
For these then-racy items, Dick Sears and Curtis Roebuck promised the package would be unmarked.
Elsewhere in their book was a fancy kitchen range, nickel-plated with a water reservoir, all for just $23.50. An 18-inch bellows camera, complete with case and tripod, could be yours for $10.
Electric belts were popular as the 20th Century emerged. They were sold as “medical cure-alls” and the company even had a “Department of Electric Belts.”
The Heidelberg Belt was especially popular. It could “seek out the weak, diseased parts of your body” as soon as you strapped the thing on and flipped the switch. It sold for $12.
Tin water dippers sold for a dime and wooden buckets went for 40 cents. Singletrees were going for the amazing price of 19 cents.
Sears even sold an indoor toilet. You could order an “enamaled iron hopper water closet” for $6, or a more fancy “siphon-jet water closet” for $17.75.
A cast-iron pig trough went for $4.95.
Meanwhile, in the Montgomery-Ward catalogue, a banjo was selling for $1.75 and a slick zither for $2. Or you could puff away on a 10-hole harmonica for just seven cents.
Edgemere bikes sold in the Montgomery-Ward catalogue for $8.95, and the copy beneath a drawing of the bike explained that just the bike tires were worth $3.50.
A .22 caliber rifle sold for $3.65. Buggies would be sent to you in exchange for $22.25.
Among the more popular items, I assume, was what was known as a “Rational Body Brace” for women. It was supposed to help “a woman’s general health, strength, grace, erectness and beauty.” It would, readers were told, “in the most natural and always successful manner, cure the complaints of women.”
I suppose every pioneer farmer out here on the Dakota flatlands sat right down and ordered one of these gizmos as a Christmas present for the good, hardworking wife.
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