|The Sears Catalog|
Rural America represented a huge, largely undeveloped retail market in the late nineteenth century. Farmers, unhappy with their limited access to goods and what they regarded as exorbitant middleman costs, began forming buying cooperatives in 1868 under the banner of the Grange movement – a widespread movement where farmers organized into area “granges” (from the Latin for grain, and more generically denoting a granary or farm) to consolidate their political and economic clout. It was this organized market that Aaron Montgomery Ward first tapped with his mail order catalog. Ward, a clerk and traveling salesman, had the inspiration to sell goods directly to people in rural areas by mail, initially sending out a one-sheet leaflet that offered various bargains. By 1876 the catalog had 150 pages, and annual sales reached $1 million by 1888.
Richard Sears, a railway freight agent in North Redwood, Minnesota, began selling watches by mail in 1886. After starting and selling a mail order watch company, he launched the Warren Company (he had sold his rights to the Sears name for three years to the buyers of the watch company) in 1889 with Alvin Roebuck, a watchmaker who had been a partner in his earlier venture. Initially, the new company sold only watches, but Sears began adding new items such as jewelry, silverware and firearms. In 1893, the company was renamed Sears, Roebuck and Company. The catalog had grown to 322 pages, and included such items as sewing machines, bicycles, clothing, and pianos and organs. Guitars were first sold in 1894.
Montgomery Ward began selling guitars through its catalog sometime between 1879 and 1893. In its 1894 catalog, Ward states: “We have discontinued quotations on all imported guitars, and hereafter will handle only American made instruments,” strongly implying the company previously sold foreign-made – probably German – instruments. European guitars were notorious for falling apart under American climatic conditions.
Sears first offered guitars in its 1894 catalog, with same material presented in the 1895 and Fall 1896 catalogs. Oddly, the guitar pages were identical to those in the Montgomery Ward catalog, down to the statement about discontinuing imported guitars (which must have been bewildering to buyers in 1894 since Sears did not have a line of guitars to discontinue). We may never know if the two companies sold identical guitars to go along with the identical pages in their catalogs, but it is quite possible both bought instruments from the young Harmony company. Guitar historian Michael Wright suggests that Chicago guitar maker Joseph Bohmann may have made some of the lower-end models. The top of the line guitars were advertised as being Washburns.
The guitars in the 1894 catalogs ranged in price from $4.50 for an “American made Guitar, standard size, back and sides made of maple and handsomely finished in imitation of either Rosewood, Mahogany, or Oak, all highly polished, yellow top, imitation ebony finger board, position dots; patent head, raised frets, warranted for one year,” to $26 for the “Washburn American Guitar, of solid rosewood body, mahogany or cedar neck, ebony finger board, inlaid, warranted not to warp or split, concert size.” The buyer is advised to use silk and steel strings, with the warranty voided if the instrument is strung with steel strings. Capos (Capo d’Astros) and tailpieces also are offered. The tailpieces were obviously in recognition of the fact that despite the warnings and voided warranty, guitarists were going to use the popular new steel strings.
Sears finally got around to creating its own copy for its guitars for the Fall 1896-1897 catalog. The catalog claims the Sears guitar buyer, after “examining over a thousand samples of guitars and from all the vast array of instruments, … has selected twelve of the choicest, made by the acknowledged leading manufacturer of the world.” The clear implication is that the same manufacturer made all the instruments and, since the top end guitars are identified as Washburns, the logical conclusion is that Lyon & Healy made all the models. However, it seems more likely from the descriptions and various other clues that the lower end instruments were made by Harmony, and the copywriter was clueless or indifferent, or perhaps even deliberately deceptive and intended to lead the buyer to believe all the instruments were built by the well-known and well-regarded Lyon & Healy.
Despite the extravagant prose, the lower end guitars in the 1896-1897 catalog seem to have dropped a notch or two in quality, but the prices have fallen as well. At the lowest end is the “Spanish guitar” with “select birch back and sides, finished in imitation mahogany, with imitation cedar neck” for only $3.95. The two top-of-the-line instruments are advertised as “The Celebrated Washburn Guitar.” No. 7110, which sold for $22.00, was described as being constructed of “beautiful rosewood, with plain finished edges. Colored wood inlayings around sound hole, and handsome inlaid stripe down the back. Oval fingerboard, with pearl position dots.” No. 7111 was the same guitar in “large Concert size,” and sold for $27.00.
By 1902 the price of the low-end instrument had fallen further, to $2.45 for the Troubadour. This guitar was described simply as “mahogany finished.” The Acme – which sold for $6.95, or $7.95 if the buyer preferred the larger concert size – featured: “Back and sides of selected quartersawed oak. Top of Eastern spruce. Edges inlaid with variegated woods and bound with celluloid. Beautiful inlaid strip in back and around soundhole. Neck of genuine Spanish cedar, highly polished. Fingerboard of rosewood, accurately fretted and guaranteed true in scale. Inlaid position dots, nickel plated tailpiece, the latest style.” The Kenmore (a name that later would be associated with Sears’ appliances) was a “beautifully made solid rosewood guitar with a top of selected Eastern spruce. Finest French polish. Genuine mahogany neck. Fingerboards accurate in scale, with raised frets and inlaid position dots. Inlaid strip in the back and beautiful inlaying around the sound hole.” It sold for $7.45, or $8.25 for concert size.
Turn the page, and the banner screams “Our ACME Professional Guitars,” which the catalog claims were “made especially for us by one of the most celebrated makers of guitars in America.” The Aaron, which sold for $9.95 for standard size and $11.45 for concert size, had mahogany back and sides, an Eastern spruce top edged with “beautiful variegated woods and bound with celluloid,” a mahogany neck and a rosewood fingerboard. The Julien offered rosewood back and sides, an Eastern spruce top, binding around the top and back, inlays edging the top and the sound hole, a mahogany neck with an ebony fingerboard, and rosewood veneer head. It sold for $12.75 for the standard size, $14.00 for the concert size, and $15.25 for the grand concert size.
The two top guitars, the Richard and the Seroco, were almost certainly made by Stewart & Bauer, having the highly distinctive star and crescent inlays found on some of the company’s best S.S. Stewart banjos. The Richard had rosewood back and sides, an Eastern spruce top, inlay around the sound hole and the edge of the top, binding on both the bottom and the top, a mahogany neck with a rosewood veneer head, and a convex ebony fingerboard inlaid with pearl. It sold for $15.50 for standard size, $16.75 for concert size, and $18.25 for the grand concert size.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sears was perceived as a threat to local musical instrument retailers. Colonel F.B.T. Hollenbeck of Arkansas, founder of the American Association of Musical Instrument Dealers, called on local dealers in a column in Music Trades to band together against those manufacturers "who accorded unfair pricing" to Sears.The Sears catalog is perhaps the best window into the world of the guitarist at the turn of the twentieth century. While originally targeted at the rural consumer, the catalog quickly gained favor with urban and suburban families who appreciated the broad selection of merchandise, the low prices, and the convenience of mail order shopping. By the early twentieth century, Sears was the largest retailer of guitars, meeting the needs of the rank beginner and the least committed dilettante as well as the serious player.
The catalog is much more than just a window into an earlier age; in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Sears’ catalog had an important role in shaping American music. Ready access to inexpensive instruments sparked critical developments in rural music, contributing to the birth of the blues, the growth of the hillbilly string band, and the emergence of the singing cowboy icon. Mail order catalogs were only one source of instruments for the rural musician – aggressive wholesalers taking advantage of a rapidly expanding transportation network reached deep into rural America – but they were convenient and the instruments were generally good values.
Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford