The History of Catalogs and Why They are Dying

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It’s not so hard to believe that physical catalogs are dying in the internet age, but most of us haven’t thought of what may come next for the digital catalog and the way that we ship online.   Before we can talk about why the catalog is dying and what comes next we can learn something by understanding the history of catalogs and how they have changed through time to fit people’s needs.

The First Catalog – 1498

The year is 1498 and the 24 year old nobody, Michelangelo, is commissioned to start his masterpiece of the Pieta. A sculpture that would launch Michelangelo’s career and leave his mark on humanity. That same year however, there was another man that was soon about to leave his mark on humanity and how we purchase our products today.
Aldus Pius Manutius, the father of paperback books and founder of Aldine Press, wanted to sell his books on Greek and Latin literature in Venice. When trying to promote his salehe created a catalog listing the prices for his books to share around the city.

The First Mail Order Catalog – 1744

Most people know about Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment and how he invented the lighting rod saving thousand of houses from being struck by lighting. If you didn’t know that, then  definitely have to know that he was one of the founding fathers of the United States and his face is on the $100 bill. What most people don’t know though is that Franklin  invented the mail ordering business.

In 1744 Franklin was having a huge fire sale of his near 600 volumes on April 11, that would last 3 weeks. To promote his sale he created a catalog listing all the prices and terms of sale of the 600 volumes, titled ,”A Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, Consisting of Near 600 Volumes, in most Faculties and Sciences.”

Talk about a long title. If you don’t believe me check it out below.

Not wanting those who lived remotely to miss out on the sale,  he wrote on his catalog, “ Those Persons that live remote, by sending their Orders and Money to said B. Franklin, may depend on the same Justice as if present.” Making it now possible for people to purchase his books without ever visiting the shop.

Sears Becomes an American Icon – 1888

Sears started out as an accident when R.W. Sears purchased watches from an upset wholesaler who had received an incorrect order. R.W. Sears advertised the watches on flyers and mail orders, quickly turning a profit, and then later opened his own company a year later specializing in watches and jewelry.

By the early 20th century the Sears catalog had become an American icon and so diverse that they were selling tombstones, mail ordered chickens, mail order houses, and everything in between. It was reported by Sears that 70,000 of their kit houses were sold between 1908 – 1940 in the Sears Modern Homes catalog.

At this point Sears and the Sears catalog had become a major part of the American culture that the government started to use the Sears catalogs as propaganda during WWII. President Franklin Roosevelt would famously say,” that the best way to combat communism was to give them a good dollop of capitalism in the form of Sears catalogs.”

By 1993 due to economic reasons the mother of all catalogs ceased its production and the physical catalog was essentially dead and set to give way to the digital catalog and online shopping….

Amazon – 1994

At this point you may be asking why Amazon and how does Amazon have anything to do with catalogs? No need to worry the answer is just below.

Amazon today now has the world largest digital catalog the world has ever seen. Much like R.W Sears, Jeff Bezos started out selling one thing. Books. Now Amazon’s catalog blows past 200 million + items and sells them all worldwide allowing other businesses to put their merchandise in the ever growing catalog as well to be sold to consumers. All this wouldn’t have been possible fro Jeff Bezos if it hadn’t been for one thing.

The Internet

The New Wave – Today

Everyone wants to know what the next big thing will be after Amazon and how department and local stores will survive what seems to be Amazon’s never ending expanding catalog.  In the wake of Amazon, Wal-Mart has now made it possible for customers to shop their store online and pick up their purchases at the door. Though Wal-Mart has been able to bounce back thanks to putting their catalog online it ends up feeling like a knock off of Amazon’s business model.

There is one man leading the front through a different way and it doesn’t involve catalogs. His name is Krishna Vanka, and his company MyShoperoo,  have set out get rid of catalogs all together, saving people valuable time and money in the process.

In his blog post Texted Based Shopping – Why It’s the Future, he talks about how catalogs will be a thing of the past and how your shopping will be done with just texting. Apparently, we as consumers, have been shopping through text for awhile now without even knowing it. Check it out here.

The new wave of shopping is promising, offering an even more personalized shopping experience with items fitting to each person becoming the norm. Searching through seamlessly endless catalogs will be a thing of the past for everyday items. Instead it will take you mere seconds to purchase an item as you will no longer have to spend large amounts of time searching for the items you need.


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