Buying and Selling Collectibles: Old Catalogs

About the hobby of collecting, buying, and selling old and used items for fun and profit, in this case old catalogs.

Catalogs. Until the early 1960s nobody but a few specialists showed the least interest in vintage mail-order catalogs. Then the reprint publishers started coming out with facsimiles, and a funny thing happened. People bought the reprints and it kindled a desire to own the real McCoy--which must prove there's a collector hidden deep in most of us.

The 1st mail-order catalog was put out by Montgomery Ward of Chicago in 1874. Don't even try looking for a copy of that one; they just aren't around. But if your grandmother was the sort who saved things, your attic might yield one of the following: Sears, Roebuck 1908 (approximate value $4), 1910 ($15), 1916 ($50), 1948 ($7), and Montgomery Ward 1925 ($25). Much sought after are the catalogs of Johnson Smith, a Racine, Wisc., novelty firm that sold exploding cigars, smoke bombs, and rubber rats to millions of kids in the 1920s and '30s. Its catalogs of that era are worth $5-$15. Copies with covers missing, pages stained or other defects bring about half the usual prices.

Also available, and more valuable on the whole, are early trade catalogs, issued by manufacturers and shopkeepers. These date back as far as the 1700s and are strongly in demand. Not only hobbyists but libraries collect them. Any pre-1900 trade catalog has value. Best are the earliest ones, and those with illustrations. Some to watch for are: Harris' catalog of Copper Weather-Vanes, 1860; New Haven Clock Co., 1860; Hasse's Music Boxes, 1894-1895.

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