Snake Oil, Guns and Houses: A Look Back at Old Sears Catalogs
A century ago, before Sears had turned into a series of depressing storefronts with a few ambling employees roaming about, Sears was an American business behemoth.
From 1886 until 1924, Sears was an entirely mail-order business, and its offerings put modern day Amazon to shame. Without exaggeration, you could buy virtually anything from its hefty, beautifully illustrated books.
Not only could you furnish your house, you could buy your house from Sears — and then stock the cabinets with snake oil products. Here are some of the most interesting products that Sears sold nearly 120 years ago.
Dr. Barker's Blood Builder
The wonderful world of copywriting before things like “laws” and “morals” is on full display in this 1902 catalog. Right alongside Curtis’ Consumption Cure is Dr. Barker’s Blood Builder, sold by the dozen at $6.
Advertised with lettering that should only be used for '80s vampire movies, this liquid miracle will allegedly cure scrofula, cancer, rheumatism (especially from mercury poisoning), acne, ulcers and boils, while also making your skin smooth and bright. Chug some Blood Builder in the summer and your immune system will “stand the heat and corrupting influence” of the heat. Likewise, if you take it in the winter, you’ll be fortified from the cold.
What a medicine! What combination of curious supplements and cutting-edge medicines is it made of? It’s made “purely” of vegetables. It’s a vegetable drink.
Today, You can buy two 64-oz bottles of V8 juice from Walmart for $7.
The Rational Body Brace
Hey, ladies! Do you want to wear a spring-loaded metal plate strapped to your abdomen and a series of bulky belts and metal braces which force you into an upright position? What do you mean, no?
It says right here that the “Rational Body Brace” will not only fix your slouch, it will also make you healthier and “relieve the weakened internal organs, muscles and nerves from all unnatural strain.” Just remember — “women should not under any circumstances, cease wearing the genuine newly improved Rational Body Brace before and after confinement.” For only $2.95, you, too, could develop a whole new set of spinal problems.
The average cost of a visit to the chiropractor is $65, according to Cost Helper.
A Belt to Shock Your Groin
For $18, you could be the proud owner of the Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt. What’s it cure? Nervousness, “all nervous and organic disorders” and erectile dysfunction. How does it work? It shocks your genitalia.
Yes, this 80-gauge belt with five electrodes is designed to send a “healing current” of electricity throughout your groin, which will “strengthen and enlarge this part in a most wonderful manner.”
And medically speaking, how does that work?
”The simulating alternating current forces a vigorous circulation of blood into the seminal glands, enlivening them into a healthy glow,” reads the advert. “They quickly respond to this infusion of energy, dormant nerves wake up and expand, general circulation is produced, youthful vigor displaces the tired-out feeling, natural power returns....The 80-gauge current absolutely doubles the sexual force and power.”
Today, it is not recommended you electrocute your genitals. A generic bottle of Viagra costs about $10 for 10 tablets, according to cost comparison site GoodRx.
Arsenic Complexion Wafers
Words and phrases like “safe” and “perfectly harmless” are repeated often in this advert from 1902 for “Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers.” This product promised to cure all blemishes and pimples, smoothen skin (and definitely not poison you) for 35 cents per box.
The unusual thing about this Sears product is that it apparently worked, to some degree. These wafers were made to be eaten, which caused the skin to whiten with degrees of translucency. It was a popular way to achieve that sexy corpse look back in the Victorian Era. Of course, they probably worked a bit too well, since the addictive poison likely turned many customers into cadavers.
Surprisingly, arsenic, along with mercury, is still used today in some skin bleaching creams in certain countries, like Trinidad and Tobago.
Entire Fireplace Mantles
What is a home without a hearth? If you ever wanted to install a fireplace in your home, you didn’t need to have some builders come over and assemble the thing right there. Provided you had the space and the know-how, you could order one from Ohio.
These fireplaces were the real deal and stretched to over seven feet tall, were made from solid wood with bedeviled mirrors and weighed upwards of 315 pounds. Costs ranged from $7.49 to $32.35; you had to provide the brick.
Today, the cost of a 300-pound, solid mahogany mantle would set you back a pretty penny. This one on eBay from the 1890s, which looks similar to those in the Sears catalog, listed for $1,944.
Before we knew about disorders like anxiety, we called them things like nervousness. And apparently prescribed them mail-order quackery. “Dr. Hammond’s Nerve and Brain Pills” is one such example, claiming that six boxes of the stuff is “positively guaranteed” to cure things like nervousness, stomach ache, bloating, poor memory, chilliness, back pain and whatever else the copywriter felt like writing.
It’s not known what the brain pills contained, but the ad assures readers they have been developed by German scientists and used in German hospitals “for years with marvelous success.” It also warns us to “Beware of quack doctors who advertise to scare men into paying money for remedies which have no merit.” On a related note, these pills cost 60 cents per box.
Today, generic anti-anxiety medication like alprazolam requires a prescription and costs about $10-$15 per 60 pills, according to GoodRX.
The Beefsteak of Drinks
“Puts flesh on thin people. Drink it at all your meals…. It is among drinkables what beefsteak is among meats,” reads the advert to this magical drink. And of course, it has multiple uses. It’s for “invalids” and convalescents, for the weak to get strong and the strong to keep their strength, for insomniacs and those suffering from tuberculosis.
What could it be? Malt extract! Yes, “Dr. Hoffman’s Malt Extract” promises to cure what ails you, through the magical properties of malt. Malt extract is basically just a sugary syrup mainly used for brewing beer. It does contain Vitamin A, riboflavin and proteins, so it wouldn’t be terrible for you, but it certainly isn’t going to cure the consumption.
Dr. Hoffman’s malt cost $1.45 for a dozen bottles; today, a 340-gram jar goes for $8.76 on Amazon.
Whether it be in life or in death, Sears was there for its customers. For as low as $5.10, you could purchase a small, simple gravestone or you could splurge on your everlasting resting place with a larger, more intricate tombstone with a variety of art options for $26.30. All these graves were crafted from marble, and regular letters cost 6 cents each. The heaviest weighed 800 pounds.
Today, a gravestone costs between $1,500 and $2,000, although many cost upwards of $10,000 according to the International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association.
The Old-Timey Version of Nicorette
People have been trying to kick cigarettes for over 100 years, and salesman have been busy exploiting that fact to their advantage. This product, the “Sure Cure for the Tobacco Habit,” appears to be some anti-nicotine herbal remedy.
“It stops the craving for tobacco by supplying instead a healthy nerve tonic and strengthener; it does more, it eradicates the poisonous nicotine from the system which has accumulated from long continued use of tobacco,” reads the advertisement. “It is not a drug; it can be chewed the same as tobacco or dissolved in coffee or hot water.”
But that’s not all! This little tin also holds “one of the best tonics for sexual weakness ever made.” The text also encourages customers to buy in bulk, so they can sell the product to their friends at a profit. The “Sure Cure” cost 40 cents for the smallest pack.
The most similar product to the “Sure Cure” would be Nicorette gum, which retails for about $50 a pack according to GoodRx.
Vapor Bath Cabinets
Vapor bath cabinets were some kind of weird pseudo sauna which used an alcohol heater and a four-walled rubber-lined cabinet large enough to fit a sitting person inside. The vapor bath cabinet promised to sweat out poisons, cure the common cold and improve complexion. Costs range from the budget $2.95 cabinet to the luxurious $5.95 cabinet, which featured thicker walls and a free “face steamer,” which appears to go over your head.
The closest modern home appliance to the vapor bath cabinet might be something like a personal face steamer, which also claims to better your complexion. This one is about $40 on Amazon.
Starting around 1908, Sears started selling prefabricated homes via its “Modern Homes” catalogs. Prices ranged from below $300 to $1,500, and you could get the blueprints and materials for bungalows, two-story moderns, barns, garages, offices, hog houses and chicken coops.
Today, estimates to build a modular home range from $180,000 to $360,000, according to Home Advisor.
If you wanted to impersonate a police officer, Sears was there. You could purchase hand cuffs, a police-issued style lantern, whistles, a club and even a police star. The police star could etched with “special police,” “police,” “marshal,” “city marshal,” “constable,” “game warden” “deputy sheriff,” or “detective” for $1.02.
Mail-order groceries isn’t a novel idea. While the people of the early 20th century weren’t getting Blue Apron- quality meals, they could mail away some cash clipped to an order form and receive soups, dried fruits and canned goods however many days or weeks later.
For example, the Sears Consumer Guide of 1898 lists a variety of foods, including herring, turtle soup, lamb’s tongue, pigs feet, condensed milk, spices, coffee and even cheese as products that could be purchased via mail.
Prices vary, but a two-pound can of corn cost 11 cents. Today, six 15.25-oz cans of corn go for $5.88 at Walmart.
Big, Heavy Bicycles
For prices as low as $15.95, you could buy a bike from the Sears catalog. Shown here is the 1912 Napoleon bicycle, which comes with an “extra heavy selected leather saddle” seat and wheels with hard rock maple frames.
These things were heavy — about 50 pounds — and cost between $15 and $18 to ship.
Cheap bikes can be had for as little as $80 but you’ll probably want to spend $300 for a decent one.
If you think gun control is lax now, 100 years ago there was no such thing. Presumably, even a child could mail away for a shiny new shotgun or six shooter if they had the cash.
Prices ranged from $1.65 for a .22-caliber rifle to luxury guns like the Winchester 1907 self-loading rifle, which retailed for $22.40 in 1912. And you could buy a revolver for $4.
Today, a 9-millimeter handgun costs at least $500.