Mail Order Catalogs with Boys Clothings: Sears and Roebuck

Figure 1.--These knicker suits were offered by sears in 1930. Knickers were the most common type of suits for American boys in 1930. They were done in sizes to age 18.

The Sears, Roebuck and Co., huge merchandising firm centered in Chicago was founded by Richard W. Sears (1863-1914) and A.C. Roebuck (1864-1948). Sears had begun a career in mail-order business in Minnesota 1886. In Chicago he and Roebuck joined resources and formed a corporation in 1893 as a mail-order business under title Sears, Roebuck and Company. Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) in 1895 bought Roebuck's interest in firm and became president on Sears's retirement 1908. A retail-store system was added 1925. The first foreign store added in Havana, Cuba during 1945 and becane te first expropriated store in 1960. The Sears-Roebuck brought the production of industry to the fartherest corner of rural America, opening the cornucopia of the consumer age to rural America. All the new things that were changing American life danced across their pages. Through it, a huge Chicago warehouse offers to modernize the farms and small towns of the Midwest.


Richard Sears worked at a Minnesota railway station. When a consignment of watches went unclaimed, he took it on himself to have a hand at selling them. He sold them with a much smaller markeup than was common at the time and soon found himself in the business of selling watches. He founded the compsany as the R.W. Sears Warch Company (1886). He soon moved to Chicago and joined with a watch repairman named Alvah Roebuck, who could service their goods (1887). The company named was changed to Sears, Roebuck and Co. (1893). They rapidly grew and diversified. Sears was a hugely gifted salesman and willing to take risks. Roebuck was unwilling to take those risks. Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) in 1895 bought Roebuck's interest in firm and became president on Sears's retirement (1908). (Roebuck lost his money and years laster applied for a job with the company. He was recognized and made into a public relations spokesman for the compasny.) Rosenwald played a major role in Sear's suyccess. Seas was a sales. He was not an oranizer or a careful manager. Rosenwald added the organization needed to make Sears a major company.1908.

The Catalog

Sears first catalog was devoted only to watches (1883). Sears in 1891 they issued a 32-page catalog. Sears wrote the ad copy. He stressed over and over again what a bargain the various items were. It'd be easy to call the 1909 catalog frivolous. We don't like to think of a major American retailer built on Dr. Rose's Arsenous Complection Tablets. The Princess Bust Developer looks more like a delicate plumber's friend. But such things are always with us, and if we look at them too closely, we miss the point. Sears was willing to sell anything and could care less if it was useless pastent medecine or remedies. Finally it was Rosenwald that put an end to handling these products.

Basic Tenant

Historian Joseph Bronowski once said of the men who built the Industrial Revolution: "What ran through [them] was a simple faith: the good life is more than material decency, but the good life must be based on material decency. And here are those material goods that made a hard life bearable: a hand-cranked washing machine for three-fifty; an enameled steel cooking range, with gleaming nickel trim, for $25; silk neckties for 29 cents. For a century, your grandmother's first electric refrigerator, my first bike, and a great hope for America all flowed from those fat old books of cheap newsprint.

The 1909 catalog

We're astonished by the buying power of the 1909 dollar. A pair of shoes for a dollar and a half -- a dozen work shirts for four-fifty. All kinds of fancy chairs and bedsteads for less than ten dollars. The most expensive item is their best piano -- $138. Violins vary from 2 to 20 dollars. None of their horse-drawn buggies cost as much as the $45 top-of-the-line gramophone. (It played the new disc records. The older Edison cylinder machines were cheaper.) There's no sign of the automobile, nor of anything electric. Radios, light bulbs, and motors all came later. The most expensive high-tech area is photography. You could spend over $100 on the new Reflex Camera. The catalog offers only one typewriter. It costs $22.95. Whole sections of the catalog offer the amenities that turn a frontier into civilization: musical instruments, ornate lamps, pretty clocks -- small items that lift life beyond minimal needs.

Dominant Force

Sears for many years was a mailorder house. America was, however, changing. Henry Ford's Model T had a huge and largely unforseen impact on living patterns. A cheap casr mean that Americans were mobile. Farmers could drive into the city. City residents coulkd move to the subburbs. Prosperity as a result of Wiorld War I and then the Roaring 20s excelerated these trends. They began to affect Sears catalog sales. The answer was to open stores. Sears opened their first retail store of course in Chicago (1925). Sears became a dominant force in American retailing. In terms of numbers of stores andsales volume, Sears was the most important rtailer in america. Sears sold not only through its catalog but through increasing numbers of stores located throughout the country. The catalog not only generated substantial sales, but was used by American mothers to keep up with the latest styles. Sears continued todominate American retailing afyer World War II, following themiddle-class move to the suburbs.

Store Brands

Sears has sold the clothing produced by a wide range of manufacturers over the more than 100 years the company operated. Sears also had store brands. Two of the most important was Boysville/Girsville and Pilgrim. The Boysville/Girlsville line were only for children. Pilgrim included garments for children as well as adults. Sears did not actually have factories, rather garments sold with them labels were manufactured for Sears according to the specifications supplied. At this time I am not sure just what the difference was between the two brands. We also notice the Handy Wear brand, but know less about it.

Boyville (1920s-60s)

We notice Boyville/Girlsville clothing offered in the 1920s and 30s as well as into the 1960s. This was not as prominately featured as the Pilgrim brand, but it was a label especially focused on children clothes. The items were outerwear itens like suits amd dresses, although we note hosiery and union suits as well. his differed from Pilgrim which while not limited to underwear and hosiery, was primarily associated with these garments. Curiously we do not note any comparable Girlville line.

Pilgrim (1905-64)

The Pilgrim brand was Sears first and longest lasting clothing brand. Pilgrim is probably best known as hosiery and underwear, but actually was used for a wide range of garments (hosiery, underwear, shirts, ties, hats, pajamasa, and children's clothing). The first Pilgram item was socks advertized in the 1905 catalog. Sears was known for "satisfaction guaranteed", especially for Craftsmen Tools and appliances. The original 1905 ad included a guarantee. It read, "We guarantee these socksto give absolute satisfaction and service. If they do not, return them to us at our expense in exchange for other merchandise or a return of your money. Sears'in the 1910s provided a 3-month guarantee on packs of Pilgrimbr and Positive-Wear cotton socks. The company reports, "Pilgrim socks were popular items among Sears customers, and Sears added Pilgrim Babe socks for infants." An indicator that the Pilgrim band was well received was that by the 1920s, a much wider range of garments (flannel shirts, undershirts, and union suits) appeared with the Pilgrim label. We notice that Pilgrom label items were especially orominant in the 1940s catalogs. This declined during the 1950s, I'm not precisely sure why. The Pilgrim labe last appeared in the fall/winter 1963-1964 catalog which offered Pilgrim-brand men's underwear.

Handy Wear

We also notice the Handywear brand, but know less about it. Sears offered waist union suits in 1932 with the brand name "Handywear"(rather than "Pilgrim"), and "Handy Wear" is a brand name that also appears later in the Sears catalogs. Curriously in the same year Sers offered Pilgrim waist suits, they also offered waist union suits for boys and girls were using the "Handywear" brand name, not "Pilgrim". In 1941-42, we wee "Pilgrim" waist union suits, but also "Handywear" waist suits the same year. What the difference is between Handy Wear and Pilgrim we do not know.


Sears passed the $1 billion mark in retails sales (1967), but this accomplishment was illusive. Sears domination of American retailing ended in the 1960s. Sears was so dominant for so many years that it failed to resond to changing trends and meat the challenge of competitors. While Sears moved to the suburbs after the War, it usually built stand alone stores rather than locating in increasingly popular shopping malls. There increasing numbers of consumers found more stylish, trendy clothes at better prices in smaller, specialized shops. Women and teenagers began to look on Sears's clothing as rather dowdy. Major department stores open anchor stores in these shopping centers which provided more competition to Sears. Many consumers preferred to visit the shopping malls than the Sears stand-alone stores. Adding to Sears problems was a new phenomenon--the disciunt store. First K-Mark and then Wal-Mart began eating into the value-oriented consumer that once shopped at Sears. his Sears found itself being caught uncomfortable between the Discount stors at the lower end and the department stores at the higher end.

Softer Side of Sears

Sears was low to freact to the new trends and competition. One successful promotion was "The softer side of Sears"--an attempt to appeal to the woman consumer. Sears achieved such succes with this mkarketing pitch. There were major makeovers at the stores (2001). Sears bought Lands' End (2003). These steps did not, however prevent Seas decline. Other retailers surpased Sears: Walmart, Target, and Hope Depy (2003).


K-Mart announced thast they planed to buy Sears (2004). It is unclear what Sear's future is. Some market ansalysts believe that the merger of two weak retailers is unlikely to reverse the decline of either.

Trend Validity

A HBC British HBC reader has questioned how accurate catalogs are as a indicator of popular styles and conventions. He believes that even as late as the 1970s that they were not very good indicators. HBC believes that the major American mailo order houses (such as Sears and Wards) are relatively goof indicators. Mail order ws much more established in America than Europe. The major companies were established after the Civil War in the 198th century. In addition many Americans lived in ruyral areas that made trips to cities with a good selection if good impractical. Most Europeans lived much closer to urban centers. While we believe that Sears catalogs are a good reflection, we also believe that there are limitations to using the catlogs as a single source. We believe that short pants suits were somewhat more common in America, for example, than suggested by te Sears catlog. This is because the Sears catalog primarily appealed to rural, middle-class, and bargain concious consumers. Affluent Americans especially those in the upper-middle class and upper class would not normally buy from sears. Especially for a suit, they woukld go to a men's wear store. We believe that such families were more likely to buy short pants suits than the average American family. This began tochange after World War II when social class destinctions in clothing became less pronounced.


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Created: May 25, 2000
Last updated: 5:03 AM 11/19/2004