Today, let's order a new life from the 1909
Sears-Roebuck catalog. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Sears-Roebuck and Montgomery
Ward catalogs were the great cornucopias of
material goods for the early 20th century. All the
new things that were changing American life danced
across their pages. Here's a 1909 Sears-Roebuck
catalog. Through it, a huge Chicago warehouse
offers to modernize the farms and small towns of
We're astonished by the buying power of the 1909
dollar. A pair of shoes for a dollar and a half --
a dozen work shirts for four-fifty. All kinds of
fancy chairs and bedsteads for less than ten
dollars. The most expensive item is their best
piano -- $138. Violins vary from 2 to 20 dollars.
None of their horse-drawn buggies cost as much as
the $45 top-of-the-line gramophone. (It played the
new disc records. The older Edison cylinder
machines were cheaper.) There's no sign of the
automobile, nor of anything electric. Radios, light
bulbs, and motors all came later. The most
expensive high-tech area is photography. You could
spend over $100 on the new Reflex Camera. The
catalog offers only one typewriter. It costs
Whole sections of the catalog offer the amenities
that turn a frontier into civilization: musical
instruments, ornate lamps, pretty clocks -- small
items that lift life beyond minimal needs.
Richard Sears began selling mail-order watches in
1886. He soon joined with a watch repairman named
Alvah Roebuck, who could service their goods. They
rapidly grew and diversified. In 1891 they issued a
It'd be easy to call the 1909 catalog frivolous. We
don't like to think of an America built on Dr.
Rose's Arsenous Complection Tablets. The Princess
Bust Developer looks more like a delicate plumber's
friend. But such things are always with us, and if
we look at them too closely, we miss the point.
Historian Joseph Bronowski once said of the men who
built the Industrial Revolution:
What ran through [them] was a simple faith: the
good life is more than material decency, but the
good life must be based on material decency.
And here are those material goods that
made a hard life bearable: a hand-cranked washing
machine for three-fifty; an enameled steel cooking
range, with gleaming nickel trim, for $25; silk
neckties for 29 cents. For a century, your
grandmother's first electric refrigerator, my first
bike, and a great hope for America all flowed from
those fat old books of cheap newsprint.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds