Historic Catalogs of Sears, Roebuck and Co., 1896-1993

The Sears Catalog began as a printed mailer in 1888. That fairly simple mailer grew into the 1,300 page doorstops that mature individuals such as myself remember fondly. I’ll bet that all of the baby boomers reading this have very fond memories of the Wish Books—the company’s annual Christmas catalog. Raise your hand if the kids in your family poured over the Wish Book, carefully marking those items they wanted “Santa” to leave under the tree that year. Yes, my hand is raised… By the time of its final publication in 1993, the Sears Catalog had become a familiar sight in the vast majority of American houses nationwide.

Ancestry.com has digitized nearly 100 years’ worth of Sears Catalogs. These catalogs are in fact time machines, allowing us to gaze back on 1910, 1920, 1930, and so on. What were people wearing, what types of home décor were all the rage, what sorts of household appliances were in use—the answers to numerous questions about the everyday lives of our ancestors may be found in these catalogs. The original 1888 mailer carrying watches and jewelry had expanded by 1894 into a catalog that offered an ever-widening range of products: sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and clothing, to name but a few types of merchandise.

Sears Catalog, Spring 1918
Sears Catalog, Spring 1918

Sears Catalogs sometimes feature models with very familiar faces. Lauren Bacall and Susan Hayward modeled fashions in the 1940s-1950s. Ted Williams and Al Unser are familiar faces from the world of sports, while singing cowboy Gene Autry is a face some of you will surely recognize.

If your ancestor was a member of a fraternal organization such as the Freemasons or the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, you will be able to find pictures of pins created for members of these organizations. The Sears catalog changed American life styles through its introduction of inexpensive but quality musical instruments into lower and middle class American homes, and later with its offerings of affordable radios (and then televisions).

You can search the Sears Catalogs with keywords and a year or range of years, but if you are interested in a particular year, I found it easier to just call up that catalog and look at the index. In the 1,277 page catalog for 1955, the index may be found on pp. 1224-1240.

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