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The idea of things being delivered to your doorstep is not new. In fact, it is as old as the 1800s! From seed packets and flannel in a one-page letter sent by trains, to t-shirts and souvenir coins from online storefronts. Mail order catalogs paved the way for the internet to become a hub of commerce. We can thank those entrepreneurs who wanted to expand their businesses for the idea of delivering to your home. This Mail Order Catalog Day, we’d like to remember the past and look forward to the future of commerce.

Two mailing envelopes on a stack of letters.

The first mail order catalog

The earliest recorded direct delivery was in 1861, by a Welsh entrepreneur by the name of Pryce Pryce-Jones. Taking over after apprenticing to a local draper in Newtown, Wales, he renamed the business in 1856 to Royal Welsh Warehouse. He started delivering Welsh flannel to local homes. Taking advantage of The Uniform Penny Post (a new regulation on mail in the United Kingdom) and the construction of the railway system, Pryce was set to change the retail world in the coming century.

By printing catalogs of his wares and mailing them to homes through the railway post, his customers could order whatever they wanted via the post and have it delivered. This helped those in the rural countryside that could not make the time to visit cities for their shopping. With the expansion of the railway and the selling of his invention—an early prototype of the sleeping bag—his business soared and even earned him a knighthood in 1887. 

A page from a Sears catalog from 1897.

Tiffany’s Blue Book and the Sears Catalog

After his success, other companies/businessmen followed in his footsteps. In 1845, Tiffany’s came out with Tiffany’s Blue Book, the first American mail order catalog. In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward from Chicago started his own, a single-page mail order catalog which functioned as a middleman between businesses and the consumer. That catalog soon expanded into a 540-page illustrated book that sold upwards of 200,000 items, including prefabricated houses called Wardway Homes. This was a precursor to catalogs such as Eaton’s Catalog in 1844, and Sears in 1888.

Sears began in 1888, and by 1892 it had 322 pages featuring bicycles, sporting goods, cars, sewing machines, and many other items. By 1895, Sears partnered with Julius Rosenwald to provide dolls, clothes, refrigerators, and groceries. This partnership created a catalog with a total of 532 pages that sold just about anything you could imagine, much like the online shopfront Amazon does today.

A man delivering packages walks down a sidewalk.

From mail order catalogs to today

Soon came Littlewoods Mail Order and J.C.Penney. From there, the mail order catalog business grew until the onset of telephones, televisions, and computers. Once technology started to boom, mail order evolved to compete with the more modern options of telemarketing and eventually e-commerce. Thanks to Pryce Pryce-Jones and Aaron Montgomery Ward, the world of trade is more modern than ever. Not only can we order groceries or merchandise from our favorite businesses online, we can book reservations to shows, escape rooms, and restaurants. We can browse shops with ease from the comfort of home and have the world delivered to our doorsteps!

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