The Original Mail Order Tombstone Supplier – Sears

by M-Gillies

Mail order tombstones took Sears about 4-6 weeks to deliver by train from Vermont.

Long before Sears introduced their Christmas Sears’ Wish Book, and retail juggernauts Costco and Walmart wholesalers began crossing over into the territory of the funeral industry by offering discounted caskets, urns and floral arrangements, Sears had introduced a new subsidiary to their infamous catalog known as the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Tombstones and Monuments catalog.

It was back in the early 1880s, when a young railroad station agent working in North Redwood, Minnesota began a new and innovative business. Richard Warren Sears was 23 years old when a shipment of gold-filled pocket watches from a Chicago manufacturer was refused by a local retailer. It was part of a common scam that had existed during the time, which would see products shipped to retailers who had not ordered them. When retailers refused these mysterious orders, wholesalers would offer a lower consignment cost at the expense of having to ship them back.

When one such retailer saw the scam and flatly refused the shipment, Sears, saw an opportunity. Knowing that farmers who often brought their crops to town would typically buy supplies from local general stores – often at high prices – Sears turned to publishing a catalog which stated product prices so consumers would know what it was they were purchasing. However, with the growth of the railroad and the application of time zones, Sears knew that farmers needed to keep time more accurately.

Having successfully earned himself a profit of $5,000, Sears grew confident with his venture and relocated to Minneapolis, where he founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company. It was during this time when Sears began placing advertisements in farm publications and mailing flyers to potential clients, with his first catalog being published in 1888 with the promise, “We warrant every American watch sold by us, with fair usage, an accurate time keeper for six years – during which time, under our written guarantee, we are compelled to keep it in perfect order, free of charge.”

Soon after, Sears moved Chicago, a hub known as the transportation center for the Midwestern United States. To assist him in his venture, Sears placed an ad and hired his first employee; a watch repairman Alvah Curtis Roebuck, who would be in charge of repairing any returned watches.

With America’s westward expansion and the growth of the railroad, as well as the increasing popularity of the mail order business catalogs, which showed price lists of merchandise for sale and ordering instructions, Sears soon expanded his industry. Alongside Roebuck, the two men formed Sears, Roebuck & Co., with the first catalog being released in 1893. By 1894, the catalog had grown from its single sheet format to 322 pages, and by the following year expanded to include a total of 532 pages showcasing products from men’s and ladies’ clothing, silverware, sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods and athletic equipment.

Sears, Roebuck & Co. soon became the largest mail order business catering to some 300,000 rural customers, a clientele Sears felt especially familiar with, having been raised on a farm as well as his the experience he gained working for the railroad, which allowed him the knowledge of how to properly ship merchandise to remote areas.

Since their first appearance, the Sears catalog quickly became the Consumers’ Bible, reflecting the events and the way Americans lived and further mirrored American buying habits, acting as a barometer of fashion. In fact, the Sears catalog had become so fashionable that during the turn of the century, in 1900, just as the funeral industry was in its infancy Sears, Roebuck & Co. developed their own memorial department, becoming the first company to offer discounted products in an effort to underbid funeral industry professionals. During the course of two years, the department would soon expand, garnering the department catalog-opportunity with its’ own Tombstone & Monument catalog, released in 1905.

For the next 47 years, Sears, Roebuck & Co. would continue publishing its Tombstone & Monument catalog, which offered, “A fine selection of handsome headstones or markers at prices ranging from $4.88 to $40, with some very choice designs from $5 to $8; a grand variety of monuments at from $8.95 to $173.30, many new and elegant designs in the way of entirely new shapes and finishings…”

But Sears wasn’t the only mail-order company competing against local monument makers. Since 1872, Montgomery Ward had been servicing rural consumers with dry goods mail-orders. However, unlike Sears, Roebuck & Co., Montgomery Ward’s catalog was not well received by rural retailers – instead, his catalog was seen as a threat.

Nevertheless, with the success of Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s Tombstone and Monument catalog, Montgomery Ward began issuing their own titled, Monuments: Tombstones and Markers in 1920. Where Sears requested payment in full prior to shipping, Montgomery Ward offered a pre-need payment plan, which saw consumers make payments so as to not “leave the grave of your loved one unmarked just because you haven’t the money to pay the full price of a memorial stone.”

However, by the 1930s, catalog sales for grave markers eventually saw a significant decrease. With war and the Depression making it harder for many people to afford hand carved and even mass manufactured stones, memorial catalogs gave them alternative options for creating home-made grave markers. But the greatest threat to these grave markers came in the form of the industrialization era. As the 1960s came into full swing, people no longer ordered from catalogs; stone carvers had become a thing of the past as headstones soon became mass produced by local monument companies.

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