He may not have realized it at the time, but I think William Wordsworth summed up the philosophy of marketing better than anyone when he said: “Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be.” Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future. For those who think that catalog printing is not a thing of the present and future, let’s first take a look at the past.  Here are Five Pivotal Moments in Catalog History


The Great catalog of 1498 at Venice, ItalyAldus Manutius

It all began in the early 1400s when the Italian publisher and humanist Aldus Manutius, 17 years before his death, compiled a catalog of books that he produced.   It was Manutius who invented the concept of paperback books (pocketbooks).  His catalog was meant to introduce these pocketbooks to Venice.  During his time, he printed works from Aristotle, Theocrotus, Aristophanes, Politian, Virgil, Dante, Homer, Aesop, and many, many more (See articles A Brief History of Mail Order Catalogs and  Aldus Manituis The Elder).


First Gardening CatalogThe first catalog of English Gardens

Almost 200 years later was the birth of the first seed catalog.  It’s no coincidence that to this day seed catalogs are so successful.  Rarely do we find successful seed companies without a mail order option.  Why?  Because the very roots of the mail order catalog is tied into the profession, and it all begin in 1667 when William Lucus sent out a catalog of seed prices to his customers.   After that, the “phenomena spread to the colonies, where a catalog of fruit trees was published in 1771 by William Prince of Flushing, Long Island” (A Brief History of Mail Order Catalogs).


The first catalog of British America, Benjamin Franklin 1744Ben Franklin Catalog

So, he invented bifocals and lightning rods, big deal!  None of these concepts are quite as cool as the mail order catalog.  Yes, it’s true; our very own Benjamin Franklin is thought of as the first British American cataloger.  It begins in 1744 when he published a catalog of science books.  The title page as you can see in Figure 3 details the terms of sale.

“TO BE SOLD for ready Money only by Ben Franklin at the post-office in Philadelphia on Wednesday, the 11th 1744 at Nine a Clock in the morning; And, for Dispatch, the lowest Price is mark’d in each Book. This sale to continue Three Weeks, and no longer; and what then remains will be sold at an advanced Price.”  See article How Benjamin Franklin Invented the Mail Order Business


Pryce-Jones CatalogThe Welsh Flannels of Wales, 1861

Meanwhile, a little over a hundred years later across the Atlantic, in a place called Newton, North Wales lived a very smart young draper’s apprentice.  His name: Pryce Pryce-Jones.  In 1856 Pryce-Jones became more than an apprentice; he took over the entire company.  But he brought it farther than imaginable.  In 1861 he created the first contemporary mail order catalog business.  Other companies, especially in America, were experimenting with catalogs, but Pryce-Jones was really the first person to monopolize from it. To this day, Pryce-Jones’ Royal Welsh Warehouse is considered to be the world’s oldest mail order business.  “Pryce-Jones…went from a shop assistant to a multi-millionaire responsible for 4,000 workers and 250,000 customers,” including the famous Queen Victoria herself (See article Queen Victoria’s undercover secret).


Giant of the Modern WorldMontgomery Ward Catalog

Meanwhile, back in America, catalogs were popping up everywhere.  Farmers were creating means to sell back and forth from one to the other. Desperate to reduce prices by cutting out the middleman after the civil war, farmers began to protest.  This is when Mr. Montgomery Ward shows up discovering a way to cut out the middleman, save farmers money, and still make a profit. “To accomplish this, Ward began distributing the world’s first mail-order catalog (initially a single sheet listing goods and prices) and backed up his sales with a money-back guarantee” (Montgomery Ward & Co.).  It is at this point in history that the mail order business took off in America.  Soon to follow suite would be Sears Roebuck, L.L. Bean, and many more to come.


So here’s some food for thought: how would the economy have progressed if it hadn’t been for the mail order industry?  Consider the westward moving America, the expansion of farms and population into rural areas.  How would we have reached them? How would we have supplied their farms otherwise?  The far reaching catalog is in the forefront of economic growth. It was a technology that utilized all other technologies, from print to postal services and railways. It is the father of direct marketing as we know it today.  Most amazing is that 500 years after Aldus Manutius the industry is still, above all other methods, proven to be the most effective way to maximize on a company’s Return on Investment (ROI). Remember, a tool is only as useful as its operator.If you’re not seeing a ROI from your program, perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at your own history.
To read more on this topic, check out our blog entry Cultivate Lifetime Value Customers: How Catalogs Can Develop Business and Increase Sales.