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Dead medium: Dead Media 1897: The Consumer Context
From: SeJ@aol.com (Stefan Jones)

DEAD MEDIA IN A CONSUMER CONTEXT: The Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalog of 1897

By Stefan Jones

Last year I looked at the state of kiddie dead media circa 1929, via a reprint of the Johnson Smith toy, book, and novelty catalog. (Working Note 04.9)

I recently came into possession of a facimile edition of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog of 1897 (Fred L. Israel, Editor; Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1968). Unlike Johnson Smith's tome, this impressive book is carefully indexed and has page numbers. This made it easy to find the media technologies (dead and otherwise) for sale in America one hundred years ago.

While I intend to write two working notes on the things I found in Messrs. Sears' and Roebuck's catalog, I thought it might be valuable to list all of the various media and communication devices in the book. By comparing the number of items in each category, and the number of pages devoted to each, we can gauge, very roughly, the relative importance of the various media to the American public 100 years ago.

Books: A wide variety, are offered in a 12 page section. Some have paragraph length descriptions; most are simply listed by title.

Stationery: writing, and drafting supplies are offered in another 12 page section.

Supplies for painters: including several cameras obscura, are described in a two page section.

Telegraphs: Telegraphs are the lead item in the short (three page) section devoted to electrical devices. Several varieties of keys, relays and sounders are available, along with batteries and accessories. Telegraph related items take up about a page. They catered to both students (the cheapest set, with battery, is $3.00) and industrial users. Sears offered to estimate the cost for private telegraph lines.

Telephones: This section occupied about one column (one third of a page) of the electrical section. Three models of telephone, plus separate transmitters and receivers, were available.

Cameras: About two dozen cameras, plus many accessories and developing supplies, were available. Sears also offered a catalog of "professional studio outfits."

Stereoscopes: Between surveyor's supplies and thermometers are two columns (page 468 - 469) devoted to steroscopes and views. Sears offers 7 stereoscopes and hundreds of views. The latter are very loosely grouped into "subjects" (nature, humor, sites of Europe, Life of Christ, the World's Fair), and cost between 5 - 10 cents each, or 40 cents to $1.00 per dozen.

Magic Lanterns: Both juvenile (13 models) and professional (8 models) lanterns were available, along with several dozen named slide sets, a book, lime gas generator, and a operator's lamp.

The juvenile magic lanterns could be had for as little as $.75 (including slides!). The most expensive was $8.00.

Some of the "professional" lanterns were monstrous beasts. The largest ("No. 61100, Our Special Stereopticon") was illuminated by lime light (gas generator sold separately), cost $98, and looks like a twin barreled Victorian laser cannon. It was designed with "dissolving views" in mind.

Sears also offered a separate Magic Lantern catalog, with even more lantern models and more slides.

Phonographs: A single phonograph == actually, the nearly identical "graphophone" that competed with Edison's device == is offered, along with accessories, and a few dozen cylinders. These take up a paltry half page.

Stefan Jones (SeJ@aol.com)