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Remembering Paper Department Store Catalogs ~ You Could Order A Car Or House

Updated on August 3, 2013

A person could order anything from an automobile to a gun to a Kit House they built themselves!

Remember the old paper Sears Catalog? Kids would sit for hours and look at toys!
Remember the old paper Sears Catalog? Kids would sit for hours and look at toys!
A 1960 Sears catalog
A 1960 Sears catalog
Another 1960 Sears catalog... we probably had these in my home, but I would have only been a year old!
Another 1960 Sears catalog... we probably had these in my home, but I would have only been a year old!
1928 Sears catalog, they used to sell guns through the catalog!
1928 Sears catalog, they used to sell guns through the catalog!
People could order their HOME through a mail order catalog back then, and they were CHEAP!
People could order their HOME through a mail order catalog back then, and they were CHEAP! | Source
More catalog homes available, wonder if they had real estate agents back then and how this affected them?
More catalog homes available, wonder if they had real estate agents back then and how this affected them? | Source
This is a pretty picture, but too much snow!
This is a pretty picture, but too much snow! | Source
These old ads are really neat looking!
These old ads are really neat looking! | Source

Some History Behind The Sears Catalog ~

Paper Store Catalogs.... Not Just For Toilet Paper Any More!

I can remember fondly the old paper catalogs we would get about three or four times a year from different department stores when I was a child growing up in the 1960s. Back before the internet, this was how many people went shopping from home. Being able to shop in ones pajamas was a real treat!

I remember as a child, thoughtfully and wishfully looking through the old Sears "Wish Book" toy catalog when Christmas time was near, for all the newest and latest toys and I would dream... as did thousands of other kids.

These catalogs were not just for kids, either. Before I was born, in the 1920s and earlier, they also sold things like guns, automobiles, and something called Kit Homes, which were basically a kit that one could buy that consisted of pre-cut materials. If a person was handy, they could build their own home from it! Once a kit was purchased, then the services of professional home builders could be used, if the buyer wasn't handy, to build the home, too.

Some Interesting Sears Catalog History...

The first Sears catalog was published in 1888, and by 1894, the pages had grown in number to over 300 pages. Things like sporting goods were available in them, as were automobiles, bicycles, and sewing machines. The following year, stoves, refrigerators, dolls and even groceries were added. By 1895, the catalog had grown in size to over 530 pages.

The year 1933 was the first year that Sears featured a special catalog just for Christmas known as the "Wish Book," a toy catalog that was geared towards kids with a huge variety of toys and kids gifts. Separate from the other catalogs, kids everywhere no longer had to fight their parents to look at them!

An Interesting Use For The Sears Catalog...

About this time, during the depression, rural folks had a much different use for the Sears catalog than any of us suburban dwellers could have even dreamed of. Yep, it was used as toilet paper in some parts of the country, for those that had outdoor... facilities. Outhouses all over the country featured the Sears catalogs as TP, leading to the euphemism "Sears catalog" for toilet paper.

A Little Bit Of History -

The very first Sears retail store opened in 1925 in Chicago, as a part of a shopping center there. It was located at Homan Avenue and Arthington Street. This store was ahead of its time in that it featured an optical shop and a soda fountain.

The first free-standing Sears retail store opened in Evansville, Indiana on October 5, 1925. In later years, Sears stores were used as anchor stores in shopping malls, this is when I remember them, and many are still there today. Other stores that featured paper catalogs were JC Penney and Montgomery Ward. But the old Sears catalog was the one that most folks remember fondly.

Go Ahead, Buy Your Home From The Catalog!

From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold something in their catalogs known as "Kit Houses." They successfully sold 70,000 to 75,000 homes this way, and many of these homes are still being lived in today. The home would come as a kit consisting of pre-cut materials, and if a person was handy, they could build their own home from these kit materials.

These were not the homes known as "pre-fab" homes that were built in pieces in factories, then transported to the persons land and put together. These were totally in pieces, but the pieces were cut and measured to exact specifications so there was virtually no waste (if any at all). When they were built, they were crafted similarly to a traditional home. They usually could be purchased for much less than a traditional home, making them especially attractive.

These homes were also referred to as mail order homes or catalog homes. Once they were built, they were meant to be permanent homes, not a temporary home that was put together and taken apart later and moved. Once they were built, they stayed put.

These homes were available in styles from attractive Colonials, to cozy little Bungalows. They contained all of the materials needed, except for foundation materials, which were usually constructed of masonry, concrete or brick. The person buying the kit house would have to arrange to have their foundation built by a company in their area.

These homes claimed to save homeowners anywhere from 30 to 40 percent on the cost of their home. Designs were not always a standard design, and the companies would encourage homeowners to customize their home as they wished.

The cost of the home when finished would be about double what it was in the catalog, due to having to pay to have a foundation built, and any labor costs if they used paid labor to build the home. The land was another expense added. In the end though, the home would cost less than one built in a traditional way.

These Kit Houses were advertised not just in Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs, they were also advertised in lumber store catalogs, and in hardware store catalogs. In addition, there were ads in popular magazines like Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post.

And something I didn't know... Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, even ordered and built two Kit Houses in 1928 in a suburb of Los Angeles known as Silver Lake, on lots they owned there. I wonder if those two homes are still there today?

Most of the Kit House companies went out of business during the Great Depression. Some went completely out of business. Others returned to their previous businesses as suppliers of building materials.Today, none of the original manufacturers of these homes are in business any more, but consumers can still buy kits that are similar in a variety of pre-cut log homes.

One would be hard pressed to find the thick paper catalogs of yesterday. Some companies still send much smaller versions of catalogs to customers, in addition to offering internet shopping. But for the most part, these catalogs are a thing of the past, replaced by shopping on the internet.

I for one miss the paper catalogs...I liked dog-earring the pages of things that I was interested in... oh wait, now I could just "bookmark" those pages on my laptop as well. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. It's all in how you look at it!


In An Interesting Aside....

Small cottages were offered once again as "kits" in 2006, soon after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast. These homes were referred to as "Katrina Cottages" and were only available through Lowe's stores for a short time. Due to concerns that they would bring down the property values of other homes in the neighborhoods, these kit homes were discontinued by Lowe's in 2011.



Comments

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    • KathyH profile imageAUTHOR

      KathyH 

      6 years ago from Waukesha, Wisconsin

      Thanks, Elise! When I look over my article titles, it seems that I am attracted to "offbeat" topics! :) Thanks so much fore reading and commenting! :)

    • Elise-Loyacano profile image

      Elise-Loyacano 

      6 years ago from San Juan, Puerto Rico

      I didn't know one could buy houses from a catalog. You learn something new every day. Nice offbeat article.

    • KathyH profile imageAUTHOR

      KathyH 

      6 years ago from Waukesha, Wisconsin

      You're welcome, picklesandrufus, sorry to have caused that flashback, especially if it's anything like a hot flash... oh wait.. you're too young for those (and if you aren't, you sure LOOK young, which is a good thing!) I can fondly remember looking through those catalogs, even if we didn't buy anything from them, they were just entertaining to go through! Thanks so much for stopping by! :)

    • picklesandrufus profile image

      picklesandrufus 

      6 years ago from Virginia Beach, Va

      FLASHBACK!! Loved reading this hub. I grew up thumbing through the Sears catalog, like many others. Vote up!

    • KathyH profile imageAUTHOR

      KathyH 

      6 years ago from Waukesha, Wisconsin

      Glad I was able to remind you, Tams R! :) Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment!

    • Tams R profile image

      Tams R 

      6 years ago from Missouri

      Fascinating story! I remember my grandmother's Sears catalogs. I rifled through them wishing for so many things. I'd forgotten all about them.

    • KathyH profile imageAUTHOR

      KathyH 

      6 years ago from Waukesha, Wisconsin

      You're welcome, alocsin... that sounds like a fun hobby to have! :) Glad you like the hub, thanks so much for the great votes, too. :)

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 

      6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I happen to collect Sears catalog and pretty much have everything from the late 1930s to the last issues. Have a couple earlier than that. Thanks for reminding folks about this. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • KathyH profile imageAUTHOR

      KathyH 

      6 years ago from Waukesha, Wisconsin

      I think so too, Sunshine... it brings back memories just paging through them! :) They are entertaining! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting! :)

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      It's always fun to see these catalogs at yard sales, I often wonder how they survived all those years...most of the responses I get are they were kept in boxes. Their conditions are always poor but entertaining to look through.

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