I figure we’re all going to have the attention span of a fruit fly today (What Animal Has the Shortest Attention Span? ), so I decided to do a light, but [hopefully] fun revisit of an old Sears catalogue. This time the year is 1927: the year of Lindbergh’s flight; the silent film, It, is released, making Clara Bow the first “It” girl; The Jazz Singer, the first film with “synchronized dialogue” (and the unfortunate use of blackface) is also released; the year production of the Model T ended and the Model A started; when the radio network CBS Is created; Stalin takes control in Russia, and Calvin Coolidge is president with the average net income for Americans being $5496.73 ($79,746.50 today). (Statistics of Income for 1927, p. 3). The Roaring Twenties were…
…a decade in which many of the defining characteristics of late twentieth century life were determined, particularly with regard to mass movements of society. Mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass consumption held sway, and the rise of a mass service industry followed, due in part to so-called “technological unemployment,” the forced movement of workers out of blue-collar jobs as a result of the increased efficiency of new machinery and processes. (Laboring to Prosper)
Sears was ready to meet the demand, with a catalogue featuring a cover with a Norman Rockwell drawing, showing a woman, a man, and the family dog poring over the pages of the Big Book.
The first thing that jumps out at you from the 1927 catalogue, especially when contrasted with the 1908 catalogue I featured a few weeks ago, is that fashion is first. In 1908, apparel was an afterthought, squeezed into a few pages at the back of the book, with more yard goods than ready-made clothing. In 1927, the first eighteen pages are fur-trimmed or fur coats. For $199.50 ($2894.34 today), one could purchase a “diagonal cut natural muskrat” coat with a brown fox fur color. For those with a budget that didn’t extend that far, a coat with Siberian fur cloth fabric (with the appearance of karacul [Persian lamb] fur) and trimmed with black Belgian lynx coney fur (not actual lynx, but rabbit) could be purchased for $14.98 ($217.33). As the catalogue states (p. 17), “Here Is Economy Without Sacrifice of Style.”
Additionally, this emphasis on fashion is unapologetically focused on “New York style.” Whether a dress is “as smart as the smartest styles you’ll see on Fifth Avenue”, “New York’s latest!”, or “unmistakably New York”, the goal is clearly to dress to keep up with the Jones’…and the Jones’ live in New York City. The shopper need only send in her bust, waist, and hip measurements, as well as her height and weight, with the assurance that, “You will find that our dresses are scientifically cut and designed to fit your size correctly.” (p. 51)
Despite this new focus on style and fashion, Sears was savvy enough to recognize that their bread and butter was from customers who were unlikely to fit the flapper image or body type (boyish, flat-chested figure with minimal curves). There are numerous pages devoted to apparel for “stout women,” and the Trimline Brand was especially “designed for stout women and possessing that smart New York style.” Trimline dresses were all touted as “smart”, “flattering”, or “slenderizing” with prices ranging from $5.98-$16.75 ($86.76-$243.01). If the smart, flattering, and slenderizing styling of the dresses was not enough to provide one with a Twiggyesque figure, there was always corsetry for average and full/stout figures. The corsets of the day combined girdles and corsets into one long compression package which was required to achieve the “youthful” look of flat chest and zero curves. For as low as $1.29 ($18.72), one could enjoy the flapper freedom through binding one’s body.
From a catalogue that less than 20 years earlier had prominently featured buggies and farm equipment, the 1927 catalogue features new and upcoming leisure time activities and the associated consumer goods. Buried in the back, there is still one page with a buggy or two, as well as a few with bridles, harnesses, and farm equipment. But this catalogue emphasizes fun. Close to the center of the book, there are six pages of phonographs, from the high end “Imperial” (mahogany or walnut cabinet available, as well as the option to purchase the $152 [2205.21] phonograph with $12 down, and 12 easy payments of $12 [$174.10]) to the portable Silvertone Portola for $14.95 ($216.89). Records could be easily purchased for $ .24 to $ .39 cents ($3.48 – $5.66) with a special selection of WLS Radio stars. Not coincidentally, Sears, the “World’s Largest Store” owned the Chicago radio station, WLS. (Did Sears own WLS?)
For those interested in cutting edge technology, radios could be purchased through Sears. For the aficionado with no budget, for $115.50 (cash price) one could get a radio console (“…genuine walnut, set off by an attractive routed design in three-tone effect, hand rubbed and highly polished. Large sound chamber complete with a heavy, high quality reproducing unit. Radio assembly mounted on a pull-out slide.” [p. 711]) The cabinet with the receiver came with everything needed (“…and all accessories,…including six detector-amplifier storage battery tubes, two large heavy duety 45-volt “B” batteries, one voltmeter [for testing “B” batteries], one 100-ampere-hour storage battery, one battery tester [for testing storage battery], complete aerial and ground equipment.”). If that sounds daunting, Sears anticipated that reaction; one entire page of the catalogue is dedicated to “So Easy to Set Up” reassurances and a “No Radio Knowledge Necessary” guarantee. Today, the radio plus cabinet would cost $1675.67; the radio receiver alone was $87.50 ($1269.45).
In the year of Babe Ruth’s 60-home run season and the Dempsey-Tunney “long count” boxing rematch (The Long Count Fight), sports and leisure activities figure heavily in the 1927 Sears catalogue. Hunting and fishing items are featured, as well as skiing equipment; ice skates (all hockey and racing skates for men and women, without a single figure skate to be seen); basketballs and footballs; boxing gloves and bags; baseball gear; and tennis and golf equipment. Even children get a half page, and the discerning parent can buy their children a “complete playground at a low price.” (p. 525) A slide, teeter totter, and merry-go-round are sold for $18.95 ($274.93), although the discerning parent had better be handy as this 3-in-1 package is “easily set up or changed to any of the three features shown in illustrations.” (my bolding) For the budding gymnast, a parent can buy a Merremaker Gym, which can be configured as a swing, a trapeze, rings, or a bar. It is “…rubber padded, for wintertime use in the playroom, basement or attic. Is 7ft. high and 5 ft. wide.” (p. 525) For $10.95 ($158.86) and “easy…set up in 10 minutes,” an aspiring Olympian could practice at home…in the cold, damp basement or hot, dark attic.
Cataloguing the role of children
With the advent of child labor laws early in the 20th century, as well as the advent of the concept of the weekend (Henry Ford was one of the first large employers to give workers two-day weekend), by the 1920s, children had a lesser economic role in the family and were given space to play their emotional role. Families could be families first, and economic alliances for survival’s sake second. It’s easy to see this in the evolution of the Sears catalogue. In the 1908 catalogue, only four pages were devoted toys, and that included playing cards, poker chips, and chess boards. By 1927, that had expanded to almost 40 pages and more than a column in the index breaking down the types of toys available. Parcheesi ($ .83/$12.04), “Tiddledy” Winks ($ .25/$3.63), and Uncle “Wiggily”
($ .59/$8.56) can be purchased, providing “Fun the Year Round for the Whole Family.” (p. 577) Marx Mechanical Toys, beloved by collectors now, are advertised with the most expensive toy costing $1.00 ($14.51). Lionel trains and accessories, Tinker Toys, and Erector Sets are promoted with pictures of happy boys, while page after page of dolls are featured with copy that asks,
Does your little girl, like most little girls the world over, want to play mother? This is the expression of a wish to be like her own mother and is a high ideal that should be encouraged. Why not give your daughter a really fine big doll now, like the one here picutred, with go-to-sleep eyes, hair eyelashes and fine Ma-Ma voice? (p. 626)
The above described doll is 26″, a “simply marvelous value”, only $4.95 ($71.81)
Babies are not overlooked either. Eighteen pages are devoted to baby clothes; high chairs, cribs, bassinets, “nursery” chairs (potty chairs) are featured in quantity; and even diapers are readily available. What’s missing are the baby soothing aids (guaranteed morphine-free) that were in the 1908 catalogue.
Cataloguing the American Dream
Last, but not least, the Sears’ kit houses are mentioned in the 1927 catalogue. Although the full offering of homes is only shown in a special catalogue (free to order), a two-page spread details the basics of the “Honor Bilt” system, financing, and a teaser of pictures of some of the houses available. Whether you’re interested in The Gladstone, a six room plus bath American Foursquare for $2025 ($29,378.68) or the more modest The Conway, a five room plus bath bungalow for $1614 ($23,415.89), Sears entices with the promise of a “more Substantial Home – a Warm and Comfortable Home – Superior Home for you- and at a big saving in money and time!” (p. 1091) Home ownership was now part and parcel of Sears’ marketing as their catalogue became a Dream Book.