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Back then: The iconic Wish Book
On Aging

It’s in the news. A giant has fallen and might not get up. Capping several years of financial decline, Sears, the iconic merchant of many things, has filed for bankruptcy. Some financial experts declare that it cannot recover. (Note: Some Sears stores are locally-owned and operated as franchises and are not involved in the bankruptcy, including the one in Statesboro.)

This is not the first huge company to fail. Not long ago, all three major auto makers in this country were in deep trouble and two of the three had to be bailed out by the federal government. Normally I do not get too upset about such things, but if Sears goes under, it will be like another death in the family. We go back a long ways, to about as early as I can remember.

Everyone in the country (rural area) remembers the Sears & Roebuck catalog, but I have bought stuff from Sears retail stores since the 1950s. The one in the Oglethorpe Mall in Savannah was the anchor for that mall, while retailers like Belk were still growing up. There are many reasons for its popularity, including its wide array of products sold in the same location. Most important was reasonable prices and high quality of everything it sold. My mail order Roebuck jeans looked as good as and outlasted my store-bought Levis. Craftsman tools were so tough that they were guaranteed for life. The interesting thing is that the company did not make what it sold. Its merchandise was produced under contract with various manufacturers.

Financial wise men say that Sears’ downfall resulted from failure to keep up with the times. Specifically, shoppers are flocking to e-commerce — Amazon, et. Al — leaving brick-and-mortar stores behind. Some of them are adding electronic shopping to their local store option in an effort to compete.

Sears did not adapt to this new way of shopping. It is ironic that the company which perfected the mail order revolution in retailing is being derailed by the latest revolution — e-commerce. Decades ago its catalog sales took away business from the hometown clothing and hardware stores that were the backbones of small towns.

It is hard to convey to a later generation the importance of mail-order buying and the importance of the Sears Roebuck (a.k.a. Sears and Roebuck) catalog. (I don’t know when Roebuck was dropped from the company name, but I don’t think it was ever used with the retail stores.) There two big catalogs each year — spring and summer and fall and winter — and a smaller Christmas catalog.

The range of products offered was vast, from ladies' fashions and farm tools to houses. Yes, houses. It was possible to order a house, which would arrive by train or truck with every piece cut and labeled so that a builder could follow the enclosed instructions and assemble the building on the site selected by the buyer. I am familiar with one that is about 75 years old, standing tall and looking good.

Country people looked forward to the arrival of the latest catalog. They were hefty and included things that were of no use to some people and things that some people could not afford. But every item was “must have” for some and it was interesting to read about them anyway. These catalogs were a major stimulus for literacy.

When they had time, ladies liked to check out the latest “plain folks” fashions. Children liked the Christmas catalog. People could not afford to order everything that looked good to them. That’s why the catalog was called the “Wish Book.” Purchases required cash or money order. There were no credit cards. (Ironically, years later our first credit card was from the Sears store in Raleigh, North Carolina) So, back then catalog purchases might be limited, but wishing was not.

As is the case with e-commerce, catalog shopping was convenient. There was a detailed order form and an envelope. Rural mail carriers sold money orders and did not mind being delayed on their routes to do so. Trains or trucks delivered the order to the regional distribution center in Atlanta quickly and turnaround time was brief. I have seen merchandise arrive via that same mail carrier in three days, never longer than a week. As Maria sang in “The Sound of Music,” those “brown paper packages tied up with string” were some of our favorite things. And they always included a new order form and envelope.

The wonderful wish book had a practical use that had nothing to do with buying anything. When seasons changed and a new catalog came in the mail, the old one was retired to the outdoor toilet where its pages substituted for toilet paper. Not only did it save money, but it was a good example of recycling. The wish book was indeed a wonder.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.