If you want to know what American life was like during the 20th century, there are two essential resources: LIFE magazine and the Sears Roebuck catalog. Google Books put the entire run of LIFE on the Web last year. And now genealogical megasite Ancestry.com has digitized more than 250,000 pages of Sears catalogs, from 1896 through the sad demise of the once-mighty American institution in 1993.
The catalogs are at www.ancestry.com/sears and can be browsed and searched, but unlike Google's LIFE archive, they're not yours to explore for free: The contents are available to Ancestry subscribers, who pay from $19.95 a month for "US Deluxe Membership" to $299.40 a year for "World Deluxe Membership." If you're into genealogical research, your subscription gets you vast amounts of important data: government records of all sorts, yearbooks, historic newspapers, and more. I don't begrudge Ancestry the fee it charges for its useful services, but I'm sorry that this fascinating material isn't as readily available as the LIFEs. (Maybe the company should introduce a day-pass option.)
Of course, If you're as interested in this kind of stuff as I am, you can sign up for a two-week free trial membership, then gorge on the Sears material. Which is what I did, and what I plan to do.
Among many other things, the Sears catalogs are a year-by-year record of the changing role of gadgets in American life. Here's a 1949 listing for a 26-pound "portable" TV set-back when the company felt obligated to spend much of the blurb explaining that many people weren't within range of TV broadcasts. (It asked buyers to say how far they were from the station, and reserved the right to refuse orders.)
Ancestry's Sears section has the spring and fall catalogs; sadly, it doesn't include the greatest Sears publications of them all: the "Wish Book" toy catalogs. I stared at them as a kid-lusting after pricey playthings I'd never get-until I practically had them memorized. I hope they're next on Ancestry's list...
This story, "The Return of the Sears Catalog -- Thanks to Ancestry.com" was originally published by Technologizer.