Ancestry.com

An American Century—Sears Catalogs Memories

Posted by Paul Rawlins on November 30, 2010 in Content

If you want a great family history conversation starter for the Christmas holidays, mention that Ancestry.com now has almost 100 years’ worth of Sears catalogs online—and keep a pen and paper or a recorder handy.

I gave the collection (and the conversation) a trial run with my family over Thanksgiving. I mentioned that we had the catalogs coming online, asked if my grandparents had ever bought anything from them, and that was all it took.

Clothes and shoes were the big purchases for my dad and his siblings, who grew up in a small farm town. My brother said the garden tractor he’d had restored ought to be in the 1960 catalog (it is).

You could find a Brass King washboard like the one down in the basement…

or a roaster like the one that had cooked our turkey earlier in the day…

or maybe the folding campstools my other grandpa had in his garage (on sale for 88 cents!)…

or the washtub that hung on the old house up town.

But they were just getting started. My grandmother’s been gone for 15 years, but my aunts started talking about how much she loved her first washing machine. And  remember the glasses that used to come in the laundry detergent? There were probably still some in the cupboards out in the kitchen. And how many S&H green stamps had they licked? And what about Aunt Eva and the family who had stayed in Star Valley? They had probably ordered a lot more from the catalogs. And did anybody remember actually putting the catalogs to their final, practical use before the indoor plumbing…

The Sears catalogs aren’t traditional records full of names and dates, though I could probably use them to put a price on just about anything in the house and a picture to so many stories from the past: the old ice box,

my great-grandfather’s buggy and horse tack, the crock Grandma used for her legendary pickles, Mom’s dancing gown and shoes. What those catalogs are actually full of are memories—and they can make a great starting place for jogging old ones and generating some new.

21 comments

Comments

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2 LauniNovember 30, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Hey Paul,

Great article!
We used to cut the fashionable people out of our catalogs and make them into paper dolls. The best part–for my era at least–was the “Wish Book.” My mom actually had to set a timer so that we’d pass it on to the next sibling for their turn to drool over the toys.

Thanks for the memory nudge my friend.

3 DebbieNovember 30, 2010 at 8:06 pm

The images at the beginning of the 1904 catalog are all upside down.

4 Mary Beth MarchantNovember 30, 2010 at 11:45 pm

I grew up in a farm in West Texas. Until I was out of high school, we had an outdoor toilet-we weren’t rich enough to have a two holer-ours was a one holer-besides great reading material, guess what else we used the Sears Catalog for? By the way, I am 72 years old.

5 NetzbandDecember 1, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I was so excited when I saw this collection, but then was a little disappointed (well, a lot, actually). I was hoping to see the Sears Catalogues that they sent out with the Honor-Bilt and Standard homes. I live in a Del Rey model and would love to see all those catalogues. Might they come in the future?

6 Andy HatchettDecember 1, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I was looking for the same thing- I didn’t know they were in separate catalogs… Phooey!

7 Arlene MilesDecember 1, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Now this is something to see, brings back memories of me, my sister and cousin waiting our turn to flip through “the bible”.

8 BonnieDecember 2, 2010 at 9:33 am

If you’re looking for images of the Sears homes, follow this link: http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/byimage.htm
The Del Rey is in the 1921-1926 group.

9 Paul RawlinsDecember 2, 2010 at 10:17 am

Debbie,
Thanks for the heads up. The fix is underway and should be live soon. Let us know if you see any more.

Launi,
We used to drool over the pictures as well—which was as close as we were going to come to most of those toys.

Netzband and Andy,
Unfortunately, we don’t have the home catalogs—or the Christmas Wish Books. There is an ad for the new homes catalog in the Spring 1910 catalog, image #1186. I think that’s about when the homes catalog started.

Just a side note, it was interesting to see how Sears incorporated the Depression and the New Deal into their marketing in Fall 1933 (images 5 and 6).

10 Andy HatchettDecember 2, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Bonnie Re #8

Thanks soooo much for the link to the Sears Homes.

11 BonnieDecember 2, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Andy,
You’re welcome. My granparents had a Sears home, so I was very happy to find the pictures. I remember when my grandmother first told me their home was from the Sears catalog, I had visions of it coming to them in pieces like my Barbie dreamhouse. The website and the catalogues bring back a lot of great memories.

12 Laura W. SullivanDecember 2, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I’m amazed at the positive comments. Personally, I’m not happy. I really wish you had spent your time, energy & (our) money on a truly useful data base. I’m still itching for more newspapers. I have found loads of information in the Fitchburg Sentinel – but the other cities I’m looking for aren’t available. Why ?

13 Andy HatchettDecember 2, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Laura Re: # 12

Probably one of three reasons:

1). They have denied Ancestry access to their database

2). They have assigned rights to their database to another organization.

3). Ancestry hasn’t contacted them yet about obtaining access to their database.

It isn’t like Ancestry can just run out to the local database store and buy a dozen or so databases at a time.

[...] Ancestry.com blog suggests using the catalog pages to spark stories and reminisce with relatives—another handy way to gather family [...]

15 Greg CoxDecember 6, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Love the Sears catalog, but would be far more intested in Sears mailing list for their catalogs as relates to names and addresses. I doubt that there were privacy laws applicable at the time, at least until the 1960′s; in fact, Sears may have been one of the retailers that sold their subscription lists. Has Ancestry asked Sears for access to their mailing list?

16 Jean AnzaloneDecember 7, 2010 at 10:27 am

I wonder if Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) used to be a Sears catalog model? I think I just saw her on pg 10 of the 1962 Fall catalog.

17 DebbyDecember 9, 2010 at 5:13 pm

I thought that Sears sold houses earlier than 1908. There were several homes in my town I had heard were Sears houses but browsing through the photos for 1908, none of them looked like the houses I thought were Sears homes.

18 JoDecember 10, 2010 at 9:49 am

As a researcher, this breaks my heart, I have long hoped that Sears would provide access to academic researchers through libraries. (I have based most of my work on the free microfilm collections Sears donated to public libraries. Do you know if there is a way for researchers needing these catalogs to access them other than the hefty (for me!!) membership in Ancestry.com?

19 Paul RawlinsDecember 10, 2010 at 10:13 am

Jo,

If you go to the searsarchives.com website, they have a list of libraries where you can find the catalogs on microfilm.

Debby,

I don’t know much about Sears homes (though a friend of mine does think she lives in one). According to the searsarchives.com website, their first homes catalog–with 22 models–was released in ’08. I know they had lots of floorplans and that people could alter them somewhat. I think in my friend’s house what was a porch was later closed in to become a kitchen, for example.

Jean,

No idea.

20 Cynthia CrowderDecember 10, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Has anyone had problems searching the database? I was looking for a specific pattern of dishes that my mother had. I have tried using dishes and dinnerware but the only thing I found were china. I seem to be only getting the indexes of the catalogs and not images. I am not sure if Sears even sold the wheat pattern I am looking for. What key words should I be using? Thanks.

21 Andy HatchettDecember 12, 2010 at 9:49 am

Cynthia Re: #20

If memory serves, the Wheat pattern was produced by the Jewel Company and was distributed in dish washing powders. I still have three mixing bowls and a large meat platter that belonged to my grandmother.

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