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Mail order shopping originated in the United States with the launch of the Montgomery Ward catalogue in 1872. This innovation had commenced with single‐sheet listings of goods but soon evolved into illustrated books containing all kinds of equipment for everyday life, from furniture, furnishings, and clothing to tools, agricultural equipment, and even prefabricated buildings. Another pioneering company in the field was the Chicago‐based R. W. Sears firm that launched its services in 1891, soon joining with Roebuck to form Sears Roebuck & Co. The fact that both Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were based in Chicago was significant as the city was at the hub of the extensive American railway system, enabling the transfer of goods from source of production to rural communities throughout the United States. In parallel, the American postal system, which had undergone extensive modernization before the First World War, enabled orders to be placed easily and efficiently. Mail order catalogues were often known as ‘wish books’, providing insights into American life at different periods. Such publications also provided immigrant settlers with a means of viewing the ‘American way of life’.

Mail order catalogues also emerged as significant marketing tools in Europe in the late 19th century, as in Germany with Alfred Stukenbruk's mail order company, which had become a significant enterprise by 1914. In France the 3 Suisses, established in 1932 also enjoyed spectacular growth in the succeeding decades, issuing more than 6 million catalogues by the mid‐1990s. Throughout the 20th century many companies across the world, such as IKEA and Habitat, adopted mail order as an everyday part of retailing enterprise. By the 1970s and 1980s such catalogues became as much lifestyle guides as marketing tools, although in the 1990s, with the rapid growth of Personal Computer ownership and internet access, e‐commerce and online shopping emerged as increasingly powerful competitors.

Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art — Law.


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