The Book that Civilized a Nation

January 31, 1993

In the first years after its publication in 1894, the Sears catalog rivaled the Bible for first place among America's most widely read books. For more than half a century afterward it helped define the world for millions of Americans living outside the nation's big cities.

But now the company that pioneered mail-order marketing is closing the book on the once ubiquitous Sears catalog. As part of a massive restructuring, Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced its intention to discontinue its catalog business, which has lost $500 million in the past three years.

The hefty, telephone book-sized volume that once brought civilization and a vision of the larger world to Americans isolated in small towns and rural backwaters fell victim to evolving consumer tastes and competition from newer mail-order businesses, home-shopping channels and the highly targeted marketing pitch.

In its heyday, the Sears catalog served as a force for democratic capitalism, making goods from buggy whips to boats, tractors to prefabricated homes available to people across the country at ,, affordable prices. It was the unofficial national dream book and picture of the good life to a country struggling through two world wars and a Great Depression.

As late as the 1960s, the Sears catalog shaped Americans' idea of material well-being and defined the terms of keeping up with the Joneses. It was a civilizing influence that also appealed to Americans' desire for conformity in the era before television took over the role of national arbiter in matters of taste and style.

It was the catalog's very determination to remain a medium of mass appeal that led to its demise. At a time when sophisticated marketers were zeroing in increasingly on highly specific demographic groups, the Sears catalog became an anachronism. Ultimately, it was unable to keep up with the changing world it had helped create.

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