Updated: Feb 11, 2021
Anybody else spend hours as a kid poring over the Sears catalog? Now, I’m not what you'd call old, but sometimes I catch myself telling students about something that happened in my career a decade before they were born and then I think about my dad remarking at the cost of 25-cent candy bars that used to be a nickel. So, some of you may be nodding while others are rolling your eyes, there goes grandpa talking about Roosevelt again. If you’re in your 30s you almost grew up with the internet and possibly never relied on catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Wards and Edmund Scientific for entertainment.
In the US, Montgomery Wards was the first major mail-order company, eventually overtaken by Sears and Roebuck. In both Europe and the US the mail-order catalog was an essential conduit between manufacturing centers that poured out far more articles than could be consumed locally and a population too far-flung to support local specialized retailers. Mail order was chicken/egg with the industrial revolution — catalogs and railway post supplied the orders, factories supplied the goods, the growing economy supplied the money. And the previous year’s catalog satisfied an entirely unrelated need in outhouses across America.
None of which mattered to kids like me who had no money anyway, but we could turn the pages and dream of playing electric guitar through the Sears Silvertone amplifier, or heading into the woods with the Craftsman hunting knife and the Ted Williams .22 rifle.
A phrase I remember from Marketing 101 in college: “People do not buy goods or services; rather, they purchase a perceived satisfaction.” The Big Book furnished page after page of perceived satisfaction, the photos accompanied by paragraphs that explained what the item was, what it did, and why you would want to do that. Some of it was marketing nonsense (“16-inch mini front wheel for speed!”) but much was informative.
It would be going too far to say that I learned to read out of the Sears catalog, but it certainly added hundreds of words to my vocabulary, along with a scattered knowledge of a number of trades and crafts. The first lathe I ever saw was in the Sears catalog — made by Atlas, which spurred Montgomery Wards to contract with Logan to supply a competing machine — along with many other tools. Farming, plumbing, photography, hunting, fishing, you could outfit yourself for any work or sport from the Big Book. Somewhat before my time, you could buy cars (albeit briefly, the ‘52-53 Allstate), or a kit to build a house. I think more than 70,000 such Craftsman house kits were sold; many of those houses are still lived in today.
The final Sears catalog was published in 1993. Retail stores fought a rearguard action for a while, paying lip service to quality while selling ever cheaper goods in competition with chains that had long perfected the art of cheapness. While at this writing Sears/K-Mart has emerged from bankruptcy and remains in business with a few remaining locations, things don’t seem promising. My Delta drill press came from Sears about 20 years ago and is a rough, wobbling mockery of what both brands once stood for. Volumes could be devoted to that decline and even if I had the heart to tackle the subject, I’m not qualified. I still have some of the old Craftsman wrenches — “made in the USA, guaranteed for life” — and it’s a little sad to remember assuming that those words would always mean something.
Anyway, what brought on this paroxysm of nostalgia was not the rough, thinly-chromed “Craftsman” wrench I bought at Ace Hardware today (I could explain why, but the digression would take at least another paragraph), it was leafing through my McMaster-Carr Supply Co. catalog looking for shims to re-center my lathe tail stock. It struck me that this book is possibly the apotheosis of an art form that began 150 years ago, only “cut to the bone” as Kent Rasmussen would say. No fluff, no nonsense. It is to me today what the Sears catalog was when I was seven. For those who don’t know, in every plant foreman’s office, in every machine shop, in every maintenance facility, there is a big yellow book. There is one in the stage manager’s office backstage at Heinz Hall. It has over 3,000 pages and is printed on the kind of thin but opaque paper you find in Bibles. Grainger and MSC have catalogs too, but McMaster is the granddaddy. While some of my favorite catalogs have grown thin (or disappeared) as online shopping has become ubiquitous, McMaster remains as ponderous and comprehensive as ever.
In this book you will find any item needed, short of heavy equipment, to run any kind of mill or shop. Paper towel dispenser or welding rod, it’s in the catalog. Any raw material, any fastener, any standard part. Much like Sears used to be, it’s not the cheapest place to get anything. However, it is not OVERpriced, it is of uniformly good quality, and whatever you order WILL be in stock and WILL be at your door the next morning. Maybe that doesn’t seem so amazing now that I live in Pittsburgh and there's a warehouse in Cleveland, but my McMaster orders arrived the next day just as dependably when I lived in Albuquerque, 20 years before Amazon Prime. Sigh, grandpa/Roosevelt.
True, if you want to look around a bit and you have time to wait for delivery and you don’t have a lot riding on whether or not the part will work, you can save money. Maybe a lot of money, depending on how long you can wait and/or how much quality you can do without. The old saying remains true: fast, cheap, good — pick two. But being penny-wise and pound-foolish can put a business under nearly as quickly as a corporate buyout, and I for one am glad that there is still demand for a supply house that trades on quality and reliability.
I’ve been getting Delrin rod from McMaster for 20 years and the diameter has always been perfectly consistent. Catalog tolerance is -.000“ to +.0005”, and I’d say it comes better than that. Bearings, files, drills, fasteners . . . it’s actually a little hard to remember all the stuff I buy from McMaster, and the stuff isn’t necessarily the most important thing. Like with the Sears Big Book, the yellow book’s real value is in the information. Every category in the McMaster catalog begins with a dose of knowledge. Succinct, accurate. You want to make some kind of tool out of steel? McMaster helps you figure out what kind of tool steel you need. Do you need wear resistance, impact resistance, or corrosion resistance? More than once I've opened the catalog with an idea of something I wanted to build but no idea how I was going to build it and wound up with a design just from looking at parts. Let's see, I need to hold a rotating shaft . . . why, yes, pillow blocks would do nicely.
Naturally, the catalog invites one to dream. Who wouldn’t want a chest full of Starrett and Brown & Sharpe tools? I‘ve added a Starrett steel-bodied automatic center punch to my cart several times. It’s almost justifiable because I use my perfectly functional $7 General spring center punch every day, and, well . . . it’s just fine. I hear my dad saying over my shoulder, “It’s not what you want, it‘s what you can afford.” Remove . . . click. That’s how the wish book works.
The entire McMaster catalog is now online and the search function is almost telepathic, which is good because they don’t send you a paper catalog unless you order a certain dollar amount per year. I don’t know how much because I’ve never managed it, I’ve always just used the hand-me-down catalog that rodbuilder Daryll Whitehead gave me. Because it’s so hard to get (just opening a McMaster account takes some doing), being handed down to other makers is what happens to most outdated McMaster catalogs. Since most of the stuff I’m interested in hasn’t changed since 1965 the fact my catalog is from 2001 makes little difference. It’s still a fascinating resource. You may start out knowing or caring nothing about linear actuators, but if you let your eye dwell on the page for a moment you find yourself learning about them, and thinking of uses for them. Hmmm, 11 feet per second, think of the fun you could have with something like this:
Pricy, though — I'll bet if I ordered a few of those babies they'd send me a danged catalog. I don’t actually have unlimited time to browse and when I need something I usually find it in 30 seconds online, but once in a while I’ll sit with the old catalog and flip the pages. It takes me back to the time when information lived in books, and catalogs opened up endless landscapes of possibility.