From heroin to houses, Sears had it all. But before the Chicago business became America’s largest retailer—and affixed its name to the world’s tallest building—Sears started by selling time.
In 1886, a 22-year-old station agent on the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway purchased a shipment of unwanted gold watches from a local jeweler. Wristwatches had just hit the market, and since station agents needed to track train schedules, the young man thought he might hawk the watches to his fellow railway workers. The plan worked. Richard W. Sears turned a handsome profit, then moved to Minneapolis to establish the R.W. Sears Watch Company.
The following year, Sears moved to Chicago and partnered with Alvah C. Roebuck, a self-taught Hammond, Indiana, watchmaker he found through a Chicago Daily News classified ad. Roebuck soon asked Sears to buy him out, but not before lending his name to the company marquee: “Sears, Roebuck and Co.”
In 1888, Sears issued his first catalog, a thin mailer that featured only watches and jewelry. According to his apocryphal ad copy, which he always wrote himself, Sears claimed “THE LOWEST PRICES ON EARTH.” A consummate huckster, he soon started selling sundry items: buggies, bicycles, firearms, baby carriages and more.
Sears’s mail-order catalog, or “Big Book” as it was later known, became the Amazon of the Victorian era (and beyond). Like Amazon, Sears was a crucial cog in the American wheel, a giant of its time. Over its century-plus span, the Big Book grew to well over 1,000 pages and sold more than 100,000 items, including tools, hardware, apparel, appliances, furniture, sporting goods, auto supplies, farm equipment and entertainment centers. After opening its first brick-and-mortar store in 1925, Sears rose as the nation’s largest retail chain, introducing in-house brands like DieHard, Kenmore and Craftsman. In 1973, the company’s headquarters, the Sears Tower, became the tallest building in the world.
But as the 20th century faded, so did Sears—its brick-and-mortar businesses were replaced, ironically, by companies like Amazon, a convenient mail-order enterprise. On January 25, 1993, Sears ceased production of its famous Big Book catalog. In 2009, its famous Chicago skyscraper was renamed the Willis Tower. And in 2018, the company declared bankruptcy.
Over its 105-year run, the catalog was a fixture in Americans’ homes. My 97-year-old grandfather, Anthony DeLuca, spoke of the colorful ways in which the Big Book was used: “Growing up on Long Island in the 1930s, back when it was all bramble and bush and duck farms, we used the Sears catalog as toilet paper in the outhouse behind our home. But only in case of emergency.”
“People crumpled up the Sears catalog and used it as insulation in walls,” says Kathleen Franz, a curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Newsprint is lint-free, so it could be used to clean windows without leaving smears. And people hung the covers in their homes. It was about more than finding things in the catalog. It was about the thing itself.”
Today, the Sears Big Book catalog still has value: Its pages offer windows into bygone worlds, bringing our past to life to help us better understand the present. On the 30th anniversary of the last Big Book, here are some of the notable items Sears once sold.
During the late 19th century, in the years following the Civil War, Americans—mostly ailing veterans—were hooked on morphine. Syringes, which were sold at drugstores, allowed people to administer the opiate themselves. So with a morphine epidemic sweeping the country, Bayer offered a hot new solution: heroin. The drug, Bayer claimed, was not only stronger than morphine but also far less addictive—so much so that it was billed as the antidote to morphine dependency. Plus, it purportedly had the added benefit of healing the lungs, allowing patients suffering from breathing disorders—asthma or bronchitis or a chest infection—to finally find relief. According to the Atlantic, Sears sold two vials of heroin for $1.50 (some $50 today). The company even threw in a syringe, two needles and a heroin-kit carrying case.
Around the turn of the 20th century, sales grew swiftly for Sears, and with the opening of its new Chicago mail-order plant in 1906, which sprawled more than three million square feet, the company owned the world’s largest business building. Two years later, the firm introduced its famous mail-order home kits, whole houses that arrived in parts—from the nails to the lumber to the staircases—via railroad. By providing instructions, mass-produced materials and, by 1911, financing, Sears transformed the housing market, making the American dream possible for more than 100,000 buyers.
From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold these mail-order homes via its “Modern Homes” catalog. At the beginning, prices ranged from $107 (some $3,500 today) for the aptly named “107” to $3,506 (more than $113,000 today) for “The Saratoga.” Flush toilets were a luxury. “Any of the houses in this book can be arranged with bathroom for a small additional charge,” read the 1908 edition. “Write for particulars.”
Soon, Sears introduced three lines: the Simplex Sectional, Standard Built and Honor Bilt. The Simplex Sectional, the cheapest class, were often two-room shanties with no bathroom—more a cottage than a house—and included ancillary buildings like outhouses, chicken coops and hog houses. Standard Built, the mid-tier grade, were billed for warmer climates, as they had trouble retaining heat. But the “Honor Bilt,” the finest line, boasted features like cypress siding, cedar shingles and maple trim.
In 1918, the Magnolia, a ten-room “Honor Bilt” mansion modeled after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, sold for $5,140 (about $101,000 today). Some two decades later, in 1939, the Winona bungalow, the cheapest model, sold for $744 ($15,900 today), while the Malden, “the kind of house that puts a lift in your soul,” sold for $2,641 ($56,400 today). The following year, 1940, after selling more than 100,000 houses, Sears issued its final “Modern Homes” catalog.
“There are so many parts and crafts that have to come together to build a house,” says Franz. “To mass-produce a house is amazing to me. Today, if you walk around a historic neighborhood with an informed real estate agent, they’ll be able to point out the Sears kit houses. And people are still amazed.”
$18 Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt
In 1902, fewer than half of American homes were powered with electricity. But for just $18, men could strap on the battery-powered Heidelberg Electric Belt, complete with a “sack suspensory,” and have their virility restored. During these days, electricity was claimed to cure everything from impotence to indigestion, and the Heidelberg Electric Belt focused on the former:
“The suspensory encircles the organ, carries the vitalizing, soothing current direct to these delicate nerves and fibers, strengthens and enlarges this part in a most wonderful manner. $18 will bring to you health and strength, vigor, manliness and happiness, a bigger measure for your money.”
Around 1910, the American Medical Association cracked down on quackery, and inventions like the Heidelberg Electric Belt, which sometimes caused sores, faded from the pages of the Sears Big Book. But in 1902, the catalog promised “for those sexually weak or impotent or suffering from any trouble of the sexual organs, the Giant 80-gauge Belt affords relief when everything else has failed.” The ad copy went on: “The stimulating alternating current forces a vigorous circulation of blood into the seminal glands, enlivening them into a healthy glow.”
Brain Pills, Blood Builder and Arsenic Complexion Wafers
The Heidelberg Electric Belt wasn’t the only quack cure Sears sold. In the early 20th century, when the average life span was 47, Sears exploited a scared, sick and vulnerable generation with countless sham remedies.
Back when depression was known as “melancholia” and anxiety as “nervousness,” Sears sold Dr. Hammond’s Nerve and Brain Pills. Among the many symptoms the pills professed to cure were “low spirits,” “specks floating before the eyes,” and “lassitude, throbbing, gurgling or rumbling sensations in bowels, with heat and nipping pains occasionally.”
If you had cancer, acne, ulcers, carbuncles or rheumatism (“especially that arising from mercurial poisoning”), then Dr. Barker’s Blood Builder, or “B.B.B.,” could “depoison” your blood “no matter how diseased the system is.”
And if your struggles were purely cosmetic, you had to look no further than Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers, a “perfectly harmless” arsenic digestible that possessed the “Wizard’s touch.” Marketed for those with “even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion,” the wafers were “guaranteed a sure cure for freckles, moth, blackheads, pimples, vulgar redness,” and so much more.
In 1900, about one in 40 Americans died each year. During these deadlier days, families often convened at rural garden cemeteries to picnic while communing with their loved ones. So why not give your family something beautiful to admire while they munched on mutton, boneless codfish, canned marrowfat or any other delicacies Sears sold at the time? That’s right, in Sears’s special-edition 1906 “Tombstones and Monuments” catalog, you could choose from myriad markers that were “delivered on the cars at the quarry and marble works in Vermont.”
Sears, of course, had headstones for varied budgets. “This Beautiful Symbol of Innocence,” a quaint monument topped with a sleeping lamb, went for as low as $12.66 (some $420 today); the “Special Double Monument” (one side for “father,” one for “mother”) sold for $20.48 ($675 today); and for big spenders, Sears offered the “Best Dark Barre Granite Sarcophagus,” which started at $113.87 ($3,750 today).
By the 1890s, Richard W. Sears, a backwoods Minnesotan who understood agrarian life, expanded his mail-order enterprise to cater specifically to rural Americans, offering everything from fishing tackle to eyeglasses to baby carriages. “In rural America, you often had a few books, your Bible and the Sears catalog,” says Franz.
Benefiting from Rural Free Delivery, America’s burgeoning westward expansion and an era when background checks didn’t exist, Sears sold guns, in the mail, to anyone. In Sears’s 1950 Big Book, long before the Gun Control Act of 1968 or the Brady Law of 1993 anyone—absolutely anyone—could buy a Remington .22 for $17.95 (about $221 today), a Browning automatic for $78.44 ($966 today) or a Winchester for $98.89 ($1,218 today).