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printing for the people: Business

Walker Library / Special Collections / Printing for the People

Catalogs, Advertising, and Bulk Mail, Oh My!

The printing press made it easier and more cost-effective to produce books, newspapers, and advertisements, allowing businesses to reach a broader audience and market their products or services effectively. Over time this increased access to information and advertising led to the expansion of consumer culture, as people were exposed to a wider array of products and services than ever before.

On August 18, 1872, Montgomery Ward and Co. released its first mail order catalog. Printed on a single sheet of paper, it offered 163 distinct items and was the first of its type – an extensive mail order catalog for the masses. In 1896, Sears, Roebuck and Co. introduced its first general catalog. Catalogs had always provided platforms for businesses to showcase their offerings, but these massive, general consumer catalogs offered seemingly everything – clothes, hardware, furniture, house kits, and even cemetery tombstones. The mail-order catalog allowed consumers from all walks of life and locations to access a large selection of goods at published prices.

The ability to mass-produce printed materials allowed for the standardization of information and branding. Businesses could create eye-catching advertisements, distribute them widely, and target specific demographics. This laid the foundation for the growth of consumer culture and the power of branding.

Before the printing press, business documents and forms were laboriously handwritten or individually crafted. With the advent of mass production, standardization became achievable. This revolutionized operations by making it easier to create contracts, invoices, and other essential paperwork, increasing efficiency and consistency in business transactions.

With the advent of digital printing and online marketing, printed materials face challenges and are decreasing in availability and importance. The general consumer mail-order catalogs of Montgomery Ward and Sears have been supplanted by Amazon. Bulk mail flyers and advertisements for goods or sales are increasingly replaced by email blasts and social media posts.