A Visual History of the Catalog

Jul 4, 2017 by Joost Buijs

Illustrated covers of vintage catalogs.

For as long as we can remember, the catalog has been a vital part of the shopping experience. Catalogs are so ingrained in our daily lives that it can be easy to forget they have a very rich and interesting history.

Why was the first catalog created? What catalog trends went in and out of fashion? How did the catalog develop into what it is now?

Read on if you’d like to find out, as we present the history of the catalog, including some flashbacks to great vintage material.

The first catalog ever published is (almost) medieval

It was published by Aldus Pius Manutius in Venice, 1498.

Manutius founded his company “The Aldine Press” at Venice in 1495. The invention of the printing press earlier that century made it possible for Manutius to efficiently produce the first printed editions of many Greek and Latin classics.

When he wanted to introduce his books to Venice, he printed a catalog of all the books he was printing—the first ever published catalog.

It's almost 200 years later when ...

Seed companies take the next step in catalog evolution

Even today it’s hard to find a seed company that does not offer a catalog. Just a quick online search reveals a huge list of free seed catalogs for your seed-shopping needs.

The roots of these seed catalogs lie in 1667, when the English gardener, William Lucas, published a catalog with seed prices for his customers. The trend traveled to colonial America when William Prince of the Prince Nurseries published a catalog of fruit trees in 1771.

The Prince Nursery catalogs from 1771 to their demise in 1865 are recognized as a major contribution to horticultural literature.

Page from an 1843 Prince’s Nursery wholesale catalog.
Page from an 1843 Prince’s Nursery wholesale catalog.

Meanwhile, another pivotal moment in catalog history takes place:

Benjamin Franklin invents the mail order concept

Most people might know Benjamin Franklin for his Kite experiment, or the invention of the Lightning rod. But in 1744, he also invented the mail order business.

Franklin published “A Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, Consisting of Near 600 Volumes, in most Faculties and Sciences”. On the opening page, the terms of sale for the books he offered, are clearly described:

Opening page for the catalog of books sold in Benjamin Franklin's print shop.
Opening page for the catalog of books sold in Benjamin Franklin's print shop.

Most notably, Franklin made it possible for people to purchase his books without visiting the shop: “Those Persons that live remote, by sending their Orders and Money to said B. Franklin, may depend on the same Justice as if present.”

Franklin paved the way for the businesses that would follow:

The mail order pioneers

It’s around the 1830s that mail order catalogs became more commonly accepted. And according to Wendy Woloson “The first enterprises to embrace mail order in the modern sense were seedsmen and nurserymen.”

To get a sense of vintage catalog design, a quick search on Pinterest reveals a great collection of vintage seed catalogs. They are very interesting to browse through if you like a peek in the past.

A notable early mail order catalog that’s still running today, is Tiffany & Co’s Blue Book, first published in 1845:

Pages from Tiffany & Co’s 1845 Blue Book.
Pages from Tiffany & Co’s 1845 Blue Book.

And in 1861, Pryce-Jones was one of the first to sell by mail order on a large scale. Starting out as a shop assistant, he went on to become a multi-millionaire responsible for 4,000 workers and 250,000 customers.

According to historian David Pugh “He supplied Queen Victoria with her underwear—it was a piece of woven flannel that was very soft.”

Cover of a 1933 catalogue from Pryce-Jones in Newtown.
Cover of a 1933 catalogue from Pryce-Jones in Newtown.

Another example of an early catalog is that of Mme. Demorest. She promised to ship anything from a pin to a piano.

Demorest's illustrated monthly and Mme Demorest's mirror of fashions, 1865 April.
Demorest's illustrated monthly and Mme Demorest's mirror of fashions, 1865 April.

The modern mail order industry

If you’re totally in love with catalogs, then the 18th of August is a time to celebrate, as it is National Mail Order Catalog Day.

Why? The first Montgomery Ward catalog was produced on August 18, 1872. And while many businesses were already publishing mail order catalogs, it was Aaron Montgomery Ward that is credited for producing the first mail order catalog meant for the general public. By 1904, 3,000,000 customers were on the catalog mailing list.

Cover of an 1875 Montgomery Ward catalog.
Cover of an 1875 Montgomery Ward catalog.

Not much later, another large player entered the catalog field. Established by Alfred Hammacher in New York City in 1848. Hammacher Schlemmer published its first catalog in 1881.

As they’re one of the earliest still surviving mail order businesses, we’re proud to have Hammacher Schlemmer as our customer. We help them publish their catalogs online and you can find their latest catalog here.

The first illustrated Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. Published in 1881.
The first illustrated Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. Published in 1881.

Because of it’s success, the mail order concept was spreading like wildfire. Richard Sears published the first Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog in 1894. On the cover of one of their earliest catalogs he declared Sears the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth”.

Cover of an 1894 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.
Cover of an 1894 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Source.

Starting in 1933, the annual Sears Christmas catalog would become an American icon:

Cover of a 1944 vintage Sears Christmas book.
Cover of a 1944 vintage Sears Christmas book. Source.
Page 92 & 93 of a 1957 Sears Christmas catalog.
Page 92 & 93 of a 1957 Sears Christmas catalog. Source.

The rise of the shopping mall and complimentary catalogs

Post World War II, the population in the U.S. suburbs rose quickly and a new age of consumerism had started. As Lizabeth Cohen writes: in the second half of the 20th century, shopping malls became a new kind of community for scattered suburb-dwellers.

It was during this period—in 1963—that J.C. Penney launched their first catalog. While traditional mail order companies only had catalogs to go by, J.C. Penney was one of the first to use the catalog as a supplementary channel. J.C. Penney made it possible to order from their catalog while visiting their physical stores.

Cover of the 1966 J.C. Penney Christmas catalog.
Cover of the 1966 J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. Source.
Page 14 & 15 from the 1966 J.C. Penney Christmas catalog.
Page 14 & 15 from the 1966 J.C. Penney Christmas catalog. Source.

For years to follow, the catalog was one of the main tools of direct advertising. Many companies expanded their business through catalogs. For example, in 1982, catalog sales for Victoria’s Secret accounted for 55% of their $7 million annual sales.

Cover of a 1982 Spring / Summer Victoria’s Secret catalog.
Cover of a 1982 Spring / Summer Victoria’s Secret catalog. Source.
Page 27 & 28 of a 1982 Spring / Summer Victoria’s Secret catalog.
Page 27 & 28 of a 1982 Spring / Summer Victoria’s Secret catalog. Source.

Another example is the J.Crew Group, reporting an explosive growth of 25 to 30 percent a year throughout the mid-1980s.

Cover of a 1988 spring J.Crew catalog.
Cover of a 1988 spring J.Crew catalog. Source.

After rapid decline, catalogs still promise to be a valuable channel

According to the Direct Marketing Association, the number of catalogs mailed peaked in 2007. Then, the Great Recession caused retailers to slice catalog budgets. Simultaneously, the rise in online sales and marketing made print seem redundant.

However, the DMA emphasizes that print is not dead. Here are some interesting statistics from their report about catalogs:

  • 30% of people polled reported that a catalog recently drove them online to shop;
  • People found catalogs the most interesting type of standard mail – even surpassing newspapers and magazines by 31%;
  • There has been a 23% increase in overall response, despite the 4.5% decrease in catalogs mailed.

They summed the modern catalog up as being “a standout engagement tool, a brand-enhancer and a mighty push online.”

This is much in line with what we wrote in earlier posts about the catalog:

One great example of a modern catalog is this fall’s mail order catalog from Billabong.

Women's Fall 2017 Billabong Mail Order Catalog.

Vintage inspiration

Digging into vintage catalog examples and old mail order businesses was both interesting and enjoyable to us. It has really helped us to gain a better understanding of the catalog and it’s history. Hopefully you find this post as enlightening and enjoyable as we do. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

And on a final note, if you’re looking for more vintage inspiration or nostalgia, here are some of the awesome sources we found:


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