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Observations On Sears 1908 CatalogueAuthor: Marcia Ray
( Article orginally published May 1970 )BOOKS ABOUT ANTIQUES - 1908 Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, a Treasured Replica from the Archives of History, edited by Joseph J. Schroeder, Jr. Gun Digest Company. 1969. 1184 pp. Illus. Paperbound. $6.95.
Riffling through the pages of this reproduced 1908 Sears catalog, we were suddenly - and totally - back again in an uncomplicated, pre-wars, pre-television childhood, where an old Sears catalog provided a winter's amusement for little girls. The catalog, always an old one, a pair of scissors, some boiled paste, and a few shoe boxes were the makings of a deluxe paper-dollhouse - or a whole village of dollhouses. Everything needed for furnishing was there, waiting to be cut out and pasted on - from glass panelled front doors and lace curtains to fireplaces adorned with mantel lambriquins, pictures for the wall, rugs for the floor.
You could string a thread across one corner of the kitchen-each box was a separate room - and paste up nightgowns and socks on it to dry over a washing machine or in back of the kitchen range. You could have a bathroom with a corner sink, a porcelain tub, and a pull-chain commode; a dining room with a round oak table set with Haviland china, and a sideboard plastered with cut glass; a parlor with a piano, a talking machine, and a gondola couch, an oak center table, glass balls in its claw feet, to hold a Bible, a stereoscope, and a fancy lamp.
You could have a stable complete with buggies and farm wagons, bridles, fly nets, and curry combs, and a row of harnessed horses, usually legless, pasted above a paper fence to hide their deficiencies. Oh, there was nothing you couldn't have in your doll house, from a silver shoehorn to a splendid brass bed, a mousetrap to a roll-top desk.
All these miscellaneous furnishings were pasted flat against the shoebox wall, regardless of proportion. Who cared if the platter was bigger than the table? When you wanted a change, or ran out of shoe boxes, all you had to do was find a Sears wallpaper catalog, and paper the whole place over and start again.
It never occurred to any of us, so busily engaged with the "very latest," that styles would ever change. We would have turned blank stares at the suggestion that we were, in truth, pasting up an antique shop of the 1970s.
This creeping change in style and necessities is clearly seen in a comparison of the 1897 Sears catalog (published by Chelsea House, N.X.C.) and the 1908 replica, just published. In the home entertainment field, for instance, the 1897 book showed less than a column of stereoscopic views while the 1908 book allowed 6 full pages to list views available, from Holy Land pictures to be shown in churches and fairy tale views "for the Little Ones," to disaster sets of the San Francisco earthquake and the Russian-Japanese War.
Camera equipment improved considerably in these ten years; musical instruments, guns, and sewing machines changed styles. In 1897, a tin bathtub was offered; in 1908, complete white porcelain bathrooms. Gas chandeliers had appeared in those ten years, as well as battery-operated alarm clocks and battery-operated fans "for office and sick room." A tremendous step forward was a motion picture machine, available for any daring businessman who, in 1908, ventured to believe with Mr. Sears that "the 5-cent theatre is here to stay."
The 1908 book included Bargain Pages in the back-two pages each of 2¢, 4¢, 6¢, and 8¢ items. Among the two-centers were a hardwood butter ladle, a tin double match safe, and a tin nutmeg grater. Among 4¢ items were a long-handled tin quart dipper and a full-size wooden salt box. For 6¢, you could get a wire rug beater or a wooden chopping bowl, and for 8¢, a little Daisy zinc washboard or a woodbase wire fly trap. Try to meet those prices today!
Mr. Sears wrote his catalogues to sell merchandise. Farthest from his thought was preparing a researchical tome. Yet that is what he inadvertently did. For writers, social historians, and all who like to know how America lived, there is no better way of finding out than by studying the artifacts of everyday life, and no better place to find them so exactly described and pictured than in a Sears catalog. For antiques dealers and collectors, a multitude of old "things" can be dated and identified by Mr. Sears' efforts. The fine print offers an inexhaustible fund of exact information.