The Gilded Age transformed America like few other periods in American history. Industrialization made individuals into billionaires, often more powerful than the government, giant corporations were born, and inventors made huge technological advances. The United States became a major world economic power. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas and worked at non-agricultural jobs. Millions of new immigrants arrived, enriching the American culture and becoming Americanized simultaneously. Progressive reformers and cities began making changes to improve urban living and working conditions.
For years now, I have taken my students shopping, without leaving the classroom, in order to get them to see and understand these changes. First, we talk about the rise of department stores, a new concept for urban shoppers. Then, we shop from mail order catalogs, one of the new developments of the Gilded Age. Pioneers like JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Sears & Roebuck developed catalogs in order to reach the still large rural population, unable to shop in department stores. I relate how valuable catalogs were for rural Americans, using my grandmother’s family as a n example. Small farmers in South Georgia, they might have made it into a general store once a week or less, as late as the 1930s and 1940s. As a child growing up myself in a small town with few shopping options, my family relied heavily on the Sears catalog and catalog distribution store in town. Santa Claus was for me at least pretty much a Sears employee.
For this activity, I have acquired a number of reproductions of old catalogs from the 1880s. You can find them pretty readily, new and used. I copied a number of pages from them and divided them into five categories: health and beauty, recreation, household, men’s fashion, and women’s fashion. I divide the class into 5 groups, and they rotate through each group in the course of the activity. For each category, I give them a few questions to guide their small group discussion and encourage them to look at and talk about every page, discussing things like: What’s familiar and unfamiliar? What would use and not use? Etc. The health and beauty category always draws a lot of attention and discussion because of the cure-all products and things like electric belts.
Because my school year starts in early August, it’s perfect timing for me to make it a Christmas shopping activity. (But it can be done at any time of the year.) I might give them a $25 or $30 shopping budget to buy gifts or tell them to make a wish-list for Santa from the catalog pages. One question that always comes up is how much are those prices now. While it’s not perfect, I find it an easy rule of thumb to tell them to multiply by 20.
After all the groups have seen everything, it’s time to debrief. We have interesting discussions about what these products can tell us about everyday life and about the roles of men and women, what did people do in their leisure time for fun, what medical issues were people concerned about and what was the state of healthcare. They see the effects of mass production and how catalogs and the shared shopping experience homogenized American culture and helped Americanize new immigrants. It’s always a fun and enlightening day or two in class.