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Before Amazon: Mail Order in Appalachia

A virtual exhibit exploring mail order in Appalachia through the Artifacts in the Appalachian Artifacts Teaching Collection

Before people bought online, they used mail order. Shoppers browsed printed catalogues and selected products.  They sent money and order forms through postal mail.  Several weeks later, exciting packages arrived.

Mail order in America began in 1878 with the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue.  This was followed soon after by Sears & Roebuck & Co. and many others. Sears quickly overtook Wards to become the king of mail order sales.  From the start, local retailers found mail order threatening, spurring America’s first “Buy Local” Movement during the late 19th century. Local merchants claimed to provide better service, quality control, and to keep money in the community. Mail order merchants claimed to offer lower prices, better selection, and privacy. Does this sound familiar? Despite aggressive anti-mail-order campaigns, catalogue selling grew into a huge part of the American economy. It transformed shopping, especially in places like rural Appalachia where local shopping options were few.

In rural Appalachia, mail order transformed many aspects of life.  Already, during the late 1800s, people were making less and buying more, typically from small-town general stores and by making occasional trips to larger cities.  Mail order accelerated this dynamic, allowing people to order things by letter and receive them at their local post office.  When the U.S. Postal Service began "Rural Free Delivery" or RFD, many people could have things delivered directly to their homes.  By the 1910s, mail order was a normal part of commercial life in Appalachia. 

As mail order expanded the market, the supply of goods also changed.  As more customers could be reached, many objects, like small hardware, rapidly fell in price.  Overall, mail order transformed the array of material things found in Appalachia. 

Example: The Sears, Roebuck & Co. 1908 Mail Order Catalogue.

A Sample Page: Stereoscopes and set of stereoscope views were an early from of home media entertainment. They allowed the viewing in 3-D of images from exotic people, things, and places. The 1908 Sears catalogue offered over 10,000 objects on over 600 pages.