Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments FRIDAY, Part 2 – SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP, FRONTIER-STYLE

Love it or hate it, May or December, shopping is an unavoidable part of our lives. We’ve glommed onto online shopping for its don’t-leave-home convenience and dizzying array of choice. But it's nothing new. Long before the internet, the Sears catalog bulged at more than 1100 pages offering thousands of items. From the Sears catalog we learn what it cost Adam to expedite certain matters by ripping Annie’s drawers off. That customers had to sign their orders with their “full Christian name.” That some things haven’t changed—the first item in the catalog is coffee. (The last is an Acme coal furnace). That Sears sold everything from baby jumpers to tombstones.

My 1902 Sears catalog was the research tool I turned to countless times for period detail. It cost me all of $1.50. Here’s how it happened:


How much research is enough? Writers of historical fiction know the dilemma well. We fall in love with our characters and want to know them as intimately as we can. What did their environment look like, smell like, feel like? What did they eat, wear, have in their homes? What were the tools of their trade, how did they conduct business, spend leisure time, celebrate holidays, doctor themselves and their families?

Researching The River by Starlight involved six cross-country trips. Close to 100 books and numerous notebooks bulging with documents and newspaper clippings cram a seven-foot bookcase in my office. But as delightful karma would have it, the book I consulted more than any other, the one I dog-eared with use, cost me all of $1.50.

I found the 1902 Sears Catalogue on a lonely back table at a used book sale. As much an anthropology lesson as any textbook, author Cleveland Amory called it “a view of the American scene at the turn of the century with an excitement and accuracy that would defy the most eminent historian.”
“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK IS PLAINLY SHOWN IN EVERY PRICE QUOTATION” blares the front cover. From the Sears catalogue I learned what everything from thimbles to pianos cost, what they looked like, how many choices there were. What men, women and children wore in every imaginable situation, what size range was available (“Fat men usually experience much difficulty getting a shirt in the right shape.”). How credit worked. How it all reflected the larger economic picture of the country.

Details from the catalogue colored my descriptions of home furnishings, tools and weapons, toiletries and potions. Stoves and washing machines, hay loaders and hobby horses, paint and fabric colors. I acquired some rusty artifacts of homestead life and was able to see what they looked originally.

I wrote a frisky scene giving an intimate look at the layers of societally-required undergarments my female lead, Annie, dares to forego on a sweltering summer day. There’s a charged scene wherein you can all but smell the “overpowering cloud of Le Muguet” enveloping the town’s queen busybody. A gorgeous tortoise shell hair comb becomes an heirloom and a pair of “ugly cloth-top lace-ups” leads to disaster. We see and feel the fabrics used in a prostitute’s costume, a child’s nightgown, a wedding quilt, a funeral shroud, the garish handkerchief of the queen snoop’s informant.

It was exhilarating to slather on such details throughout the story. But how much is enough? Alas, much was lost to the delete button, “cool research,” as more than one editor called it, that didn’t move the story forward. An example: the reader knows Annie and her sister Jenny shared glasses of lemonade out on Jenny’s porch. But they don’t get to see the original version of the scene: Annie sticking a pinkie through a door screen (“handsomer than the cut shows”), opening Jenny’s refrigerator (nope, Sears didn’t call it an icebox) and pouring the lemonade into ruby-stained tumblers while Jenny finishes up her work with a white cedar dash butter churn (“peculiarly adapted for milk and butter purposes”) and puts the butter into brass-locked molds (“securing the utmost possible rigidity”).

But writing those kinds of details helped me experience the world in which my characters lived, and empathize with its beauties and challenges. Even when deleted, the details remained embedded in the story by virtue of how they influenced the thoughts, dialogue and deeds of the characters.
A battered old cast-off catalogue—$1.50. Creating a richly faceted portrait of another time—priceless.

[Originally published on Sarah Johnson’s blog, Reading the Past]


Thanks so much for sharing your week with me. Comment here to be entered in tonight’s BOOK GIVEAWAY at 5:00 pm PST.

Want to know more?
Visit my website at
Join me on my Facebook author page at Ellen Notbohm, Author

Comments/reviews on Goodreads and Amazon are greatly appreciated!

message 2: by Martha (new)

Martha Conway | 255 comments Mod
I can't believe the Sears catalogue was over 1,000 pages long. I had no idea! That's amazing.

message 3: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments Martha wrote: "I can't believe the Sears catalogue was over 1,000 pages long. I had no idea! That's amazing."

My 1902 catalog is 1,162 pages. It's nothing less than a deep anthropological look at the country in the last decade of the frontier period. Anything you want me to look up for you? :)

message 4: by Kari (new)

Kari (karibovee) | 98 comments Mod
Couldn't you buy a house from the Sears catalogue? I thought I heard that somewhere.

message 5: by Chelsie (new)

Chelsie (chelzlou) | 83 comments Yes! I’ve actually seen adds while doing genealogical research of homes your could buy out of the Sears catalogue. That is so interesting to us, however at the time that was the thing. My aunt and uncle actually did that, not sure if it was out of the Sear’s catalogue but it was similar. The basement was dug and poured and then the two sides of the house same on semis to be put together.

message 6: by Ellen (last edited Dec 14, 2018 08:28AM) (new)

Ellen Notbohm | 33 comments Yes, the Sears catalog sold kit houses at one time. There's been a resurgence of interest lately and I've seen several articles about it. It seems so ironic that the sad development of Sears going under coincides with the affordable housing crisis many cities are facing, and it leaves me wondering if we're about to see some version of the old kit house rise again. Didn't Ecclesiastes tell us there is nothing new under the sun? :)

back to top