Published from 1888 to 1993, the Sears catalog featured everything from sewing machines, clothes, and sporting goods to cars, houses, and livestock. The Sears catalog is a great chronicle of our country’s history, as told through everyday items sold to ordinary people. But, looking back, many of its pages were far from ordinary.
Here are some of the most memorable things the Sears catalog had to offer. (You can browse a selection of almost 100 years of Sears catalogs on Ancestry)
Patent medicines were common until the early 20th century. These dubious elixirs claimed to cure whatever ailed you, when in fact most of them did nothing. Some may have “worked,” thanks to harmful ingredients like opium and arsenic. The Spring 1898 catalog shown here offers a sampling of remedies that may make you shudder — either with fear or laughter. Brown’s Vegetable Cure for Female Weakness claims to rid women of everything from ordinary menstrual cramps and back pain to bizarre symptoms such as “a dread of some impending evil” and “sparks before the eyes.” Curtis’ Consumption Cure guaranteed it could eradicate tuberculosis, a promise it almost certainly couldn’t keep.
Vegetable pills and mysterious compounds weren’t the only strange remedies making the rounds at the turn of the century. Electricity was frequently advertised a cure-all, too. This page from the Fall 1902 catalog advertises the Heidelberg Electric Belt, which sent electrical currents through men’s groin areas to cure a”weak or deranged nervous system” and double “sexual force and power.”
Historians and costumers use the Sears catalog to find out what the average person during an era would wear. The Fall 1900 catalog paints a lovely picture of early-20th-century women strolling through town in plush capes trimmed with bear fur and beads.
In addition to impossibly small-waisted maternity dresses, the Fall 1911 catalog also offered other maternity supplies because of “the reluctance of many to consult a physician until forced to do so by approaching birth.” Rubber sheets, a breast binder, olive oil, and antiseptic soap are just a few of the items included, along with a reminder that they are not a replacement for a doctor.
This practical catalog wasn’t all clothes and quack medicines, however. For a long time, you could buy cars through the mail from Sears. In this Fall 1909 ad, the Sears Motor Buggy boasts speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and operation so simple even a child could do it. The price was $395, or just over $10,000 in today’s dollars.
Until the early 1940s, you could even buy a mail-order house from Sears. The do-it-yourself kit came with everything you needed to build a Sears home, including instructions. Many of these homes are still standing today. This Fall 1932 ad shows a few of the models available for about $1,700, which would be roughly $29,000 today.
With your Sears car parked in the driveway of your Sears home, you could also order some Sears chickens to turn the backyard into a productive farm. The 1947 Spring catalog had baby chicks ready to order.
If hunting in the woods was more your style, Sears also sold a wide variety of rifles, as this Fall 1950 catalog shows. Though guns-by-mail sounds like a thing of the distant past, the catalog sold them well into 1970s.
Speaking of the ’70s, we all know it was a time of questionable fashion. But this outfit from the Fall 1973 catalog is particularly eye-catching, with its contrasting colors and patterns, ruffles, and wide-leg pants in a plaid that many of us might recognize from an old rec room sofa.
When the VCR first came on the scene, there had never been a technology quite like it. That may explain the $1,125 price tag in the Fall 1981 catalog for a machine roughly the size of a small suitcase. In today’s dollars, that would be over $2,800.
Cell phones used to be bigger and more expensive, too. This “small, lightweight” cell phone from the Fall 1991 catalog weighs almost two pounds. Add in the battery, and it goes up to nearly eight pounds. It cost more than $900, or $1,500 after inflation.
Then again, if the catalog were still being published today, people 20 years from now would surely balk at the price and features of an iPhone.