After the Civil War, artisanal local manufacturers usually enjoyed comfortable mini-monopolies. But with the rapid spread of the railroads and the telegraph, new department stores and mail-order catalogs pressured local producers and middlemen with mass-produced goods, a precursor to the Wal-Mart era. In the mid-1880’s, the Bloomingdale’s catalog promised that orders would arrive within two weeks in virtually the whole of the United States, including large swathes of territory reachable only by wagon-train a decade before. The productivity shock was comparable to that from the Internet in our own day.

—Charles R. Morris, Freakoutonomics

On the shelf in my office is a reproduction of a 1908 Sears & Roebuck catalog. It is by no means a slender tome; it tips the scales at a whopping 1184 pages. And those 1184 pages are absolutely bursting with products, their incomparability extolled in paragraphs of turgid copy accompanied by intricate illustrations. It’s a gripping read if you’re into cream separators and horse blankets.

When you consider the fact that the first mail order catalog (from Montgomery Ward, in 1872) was only one page, you get an idea of the scope of the boom in consumerism that took place in the last 30 years of the 19th century. And what fueled that boom? The flood of mass-produced products from newly efficient American factories staffed by immigrant labor willing to work a rock-bottom wages. Clothing, for example, was becoming a commodity that was cheaper to buy from eastern markets than to produce at home or commission from a local seamstress or tailor. In short, mail-order catalogs were the Wal-Marts of their day. And just as Sam Walton has become one of the twenty richest people in all of history[1] by undercutting pricier domestic goods with cheap crap from overseas, men like Richard Warren Sears, Alvah Curtis Roebuck, and Aaron Montgomery Ward made their (many zillions of) nickles and dimes undercutting even pricier artisanal goods with cheap crap from domestic factories. It’s kind of like karma, don’t you find?

And it wasn’t just commercial goods swamping the market. Thanks to new agricultural methods, midwest factory farms (thousand-acre spreads with 70-horse plowing teams) were not only wiping out smaller competitors in the U.S., but were dominating world markets as well, spreading price instability on a global scale. This extreme boom in productivity (along with a few other little things like the collapse of the Vienna Stock Exchange[2], the attempt by the American Government get back onto a strict gold standard after the Civil War[3], and Jay Cooke’s totally awesome Panic of 1873) resulted in severe and sustained deflation, with prices plummeting by about 25% between 1873 and 1879. Thus, a dollar in 1879 would buy you 25% more than a dollar in 1873. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, not if you were a debtor—because as deflation made money “worth more” year after year, you’d find yourself faced with the unsavory prospect of spending dollars that could now buy a whole lot more to service debt that, when you incurred it, bought you a whole lot less.[4]

This whole mess added up to what economists have called “The Long Depression.” In short, most Americans were faced with a no-win situation. Sure, the money in your pocket now bought you way more. But the problem was you didn’t have any money to spend, because all the people who used to pay you money for the furniture you crafted, or the dresses you made, or the shoes you cobbled, now bought those self-same items from Wal-Mart Sears, Roebuck & Co. So you went to the big city, got yourself a factory job, and even though it paid less than you used to make, it all evened out because everything was so cheap to buy now …

Welcome to the birth of American consumerism.


Which brings us to patent medicines.

In THE NATIVE STAR, my main character Emily Edwards is a small-town witch who has always managed to eke out a marginal living selling horoscopes and hexes and other such magical produce. How would her “mini-monopoly” be impacted by the economic changes sweeping the nation? Just like the real life “goomer doctors” and “granny women” and midwives and folk healers who once thrived in small-town America, by 1876 she’s in the midst of watching her business falter and fail. And what is the competition that ultimately does her in? History has provided me with the perfect analogue. Patent medicines.

(Of course, in the book they’re patent magicks because … well … Emily’s a witch.)

Patent medicines were so called because customers were meant to believe that the formulas were so exclusive, so powerful, and so beneficial that they had to be protected by United States Patent Office. This was generally a bunch of hogwash, like so many of the other claims made by patent medicine manufacturers. But the nostrums found great favor with the American buying public. They were cheap. They provided an alternative to the traditional medical establishment that was largely unregulated and rife with factionalism (eclectics, homeopaths, osteopaths, allopaths … who could choose?) And even if the medicine didn’t cure you, it could make you feel pretty damn good about being sick, with some formulations containing up to 44% alcohol, not to mention cocaine, morphine, heroin, and/or opium. And some of the medicines could actually do what no doctor could promise—cure you permanently. Of course, this was because they had ingredients like calomel, mercury, radium and arsenic that would kill you dead.

Much of the success of patent medicines came from how they were packaged and advertised. Colorful illustrations, moving testimonials, and astounding claims combined to give these products massive shelf appeal. Considering the actual components of these concoctions (a challenging task, given that producers were not obligated to list their ingredients), there’s little chance that any of them were particularly efficacious—but they didn’t need to be. They were at the forefront of a new kind of product—a product that derived its entire value (well, if you don’t count the booze and the cocaine) from marketing. Have you ever heard the saying “you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle”? Patent medicines were all sizzle. Their promoters were not selling a product, but a promise—the promise of better health. It’s no coincidence that Coca Cola (which was first introduced in this era, and is to this day a textbook example of how marketing can turn something as intrinsically valueless as colored sugar water into a valuable commodity) started off as a kind of patent medicine.

Moreover, the way these products were sold represented a revolutionary change in the way consumers related to producers—nothing less, in fact, than the final shift from colonial mercantilism to modern capitalism.

In a mercantilist economy, people have real social relations to the producers of the goods they consume. But when people no longer have social relations with others who make the objects they consume, that means that the only relation they have is with the object itself. So part of capitalism as a way of thinking is that people become “consumers,” that is, they define themselves by the objects they purchase rather than the objects they produce.

Richard Hooker

To put it another way: if your neighborhood folk healer stuck you with a bunch of nasty herbs, you’d be on her doorstep the next morning demanding your money back. And if she didn’t give it to you, you’d badmouth her all over town and cost her even more customers. But if that ten-cent bottle of Dalley’s Magical Pain Extractor let you down, who did you turn to?

The years between the end of the Civil War and the United States’ entry into World War I mark the heyday of the “free market” that so many fetishize today. In large part (sorry, Ron Paul) it pretty much consisted of consumers just getting straight-up screwed, both coming and going. On the front end, they had only the hyperinflated claims of the marketing and advertising to go by when making a buying decision. And on the back end, if the buying decision turned out poorly, they had little recourse. This abuse of the American consumer led in a direct line to the regulations and reforms of the early 20th century.[5]

Specifically, in 1906 (two years before my Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog was printed, though you wouldn’t know if from the pages and pages of patent medicines still advertised within) the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required manufacturers to list the amounts of alcohol, opium, cocaine and other substances in their medicines. The passage of the act ultimately led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. Which free market proponents to this very day advocate for the abolishment of.

History marches on.

[1] Per Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, Walton occupies the 17th spot on the list of the 75 richest people in all of history. Marshall Field comes in 34th. Ingvar Kamprad of IKEA comes in 67th. Want to become one of the richest men in history? Richer than Cleopatra and most of the Astors? Sell cheap crap![2] A collapse which occurred, by the way, because of a housing bubble. For reals.

[3] Attempting to strictly adhere to a gold standard is a recipe for disaster in a time of radical increases in productivity. Deflation occurs whenever an economy using the gold standard grows faster than the gold supply.

[4] When an economy grows faster than its money supply, the same money is used to execute a larger number of transactions. The only ways an economy can execute more transactions with the same amount of money are to execute transactions more quickly, and to lower the cost of the transactions. As deflation drives costs down, the value of each unit of money goes up. This increases the value of cash, but it decreases the value of assets, since the same asset can be purchased with less money. This in turn increases the ratio of debts to assets over time. For example, the monthly cost of a fixed-rate home mortgage stays the same, but the value of the house goes down, and the value of the dollars required to pay the mortgage goes up. In essence, deflation rewards cash savings, and discourages the use of loans.

[5] Regulations and reforms which, in turn, were not without their own problems: political favoritism, cronyism, and the birth of the modern Washington lobbyist. But I digress.

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5 Responses to Mail order catalogs, patent medicines, and the birth of American consumerism

  1. Serge says:

    “…It’s a gripping read if you’re into cream separators and horse blankets…”
    That's disgusting!

    Thanks for the article, MK, and I very much am looking forward to being able to read your novel.

  2. stina leicht says:

    can't wait to read the book. seriously. thanks for posting this. exactly the kinds of historic details i enjoy. 🙂

  3. Sara says:

    I just learned more about 19th century economy than several history teachers managed to teach me. WOW! Very nice description of the situations. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for this very unique blog of yours. I can not set to think your sources for these ideas, but this has made a good imprint on me. Hopefully there is more to come.

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