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History of Mail Order

Catalogue Home Shopping

Mail-order or distance selling is often thought to belong to modern times, but it goes way back in history.

Mail-order is closely linked to printing and the representation of images in the form of a catalogue, i.e. a series of images showing the goods offered, as well as distribution: bringing goods from one place to another, therefore in most countries linked to the emergence of postal services in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Who "invented" mail-order? Is it really Aristide Boucicaut, the ingenious founder of Au Bon Marché in Paris, who published his first catalogue in 1865 or were there predecessors? Certainly there were, some four centuries earlier!

The first catalogues were introduced by printers serving their own business of selling the books they printed. At the end of the fifteenth century they made lists of the available titles and distribute them to those who frequented the book markets. Later they sent around their own "postmen" going from village to village offering the volumes they had taken with them. They posted their lists all over the place and waited at the local inn for their customers. Later they preferred to wait at specific places for their customers: the first libraries.

American Catalogs

American sources consider the oldest catalogue to be the one written by Aldus Manutius of Venice in 1498. His mail-order offerings included 15 texts that he had published.

German Home Shopping

The German mail-order history goes back to the 16th. century, when traders in Nuremberg offered their goods to customers in the north of Germany.

In 1667, William Lucas, a professional English gardener, was the first to publish a mercantile catalogue. By the end of the 18th century, a number of gardeners and nurseries had followed his example and issued catalogues featuring seeds, bulbs and plants, including Stassen in the Netherlands.

In the New World, the forerunners of the modern mail-order catalogues appear in mid nineteenth century. In 1844, for example, Orvis distributes a catalogue listing a range of fishing lure supplies and in 1845 Tiffany & Company of Fifth Avenue publishes its catalogue of "Useful and Fancy Articles", offering imported goods from Europe and China.

In 1872 Mr. A.M. Ward started the later world-famous company Montgomery Ward and his competitor Mr. R.W. Sears from Minneapolis started in 1886 sending watches to customers in the Far West. In the late nineteenth century the Ward catalogue consisted already of 244 pages with thousand of items offered. Beginning 1897, the circulation of Sears's general catalogue increased from some 318,000 copies to over one million for the spring-catalogue in 1904 and to over three million for the fall-catalogue in 1907. Today, the U.S. is still home of many successful mail-order operations: Spiegel, J.C. Penney, Eddie Bauer, Lands' End, Readers' Digest, the Sharper Image and many others.

French Home Shopping

In France the famous company Manufrance (Manufacture Française d'Armes et de Cycles de St. Etienne) brought out a catalogue of 150 pages in 1885. Over the years this French catalogue grew to over 1200 pages. Manufrance was possibly the first "multi-channel" company, offering their goods by mail-order, shops and specialised resellers. La Redoute was founded in 1922 and Trois Suisses in 1932.

Looking back it is quite understandable that mail-order companies came to fruition in the second half of the nineteenth century: mass supply of consumer goods became available and therefore the need to find new and bigger customer groups. In Western Europe this was combined with the emergence of a railway network and a regular and relatively cheap transport system of mail-items, in particular parcels.

The development of consumer credit facilities, daily and weekly papers, and new printing techniques are the more technical aspects of the developing mail-order sector.

In Western Europe, apart from some specialized companies, mail-order grew by the fact that, contrary to the USA, the big department stores developed mail-order departments because of the close link with the general range of goods as well as the wish to be closer to their customers.

In the twenties the American mail-order companies set up a network of stores to be closer to their consumers, which is a trend we also see later in Europe.

UK Catalogues

The UK  is a rather different story. Until the world crisis in the thirties, so called "saving clubs" existed among the working class population. Members of these clubs collected combined orders that were delivered by the mail-order company on credit. One of the members acted as intermediary, collecting the orders. Hence the agents system as it still exists in the UK with companies such as Littlewoods, K and Co, Very, Marshall Ward, Freemans and Grattan.

Mail-order really came to life after the second world war. Chances were given by a huge demand for goods and the ruined distribution system. This gave way to the mail order companies in Germany: Otto in 1949, Bertelsmann introducing in 1950 the first book club. Later other countries followed. Part of this was the catalogue company started by James David Williams in 1875, now known as JD Williams.


Despite its size, or maybe because of it, Australia never embrased catalogue home shopping, however with the advent of the internet, online shopping has become quite popular. Websites such as allow online shopping at not only websites from Australian hight street stores and pur plays, but from the best the web has to offer worldwide.

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