Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 315:
1909 SEARS-ROEBUCK CATALOG

by John H.Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 315.

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 the Midwest.

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 $22.95.

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 32-page catalog.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Sears, Roebuck and Co. Incorporated: 1909 Catalog (J. Feinman, ed.). New York: Ventura Books, Inc., 1979.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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