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Mail-order bathrooms and catalogue shopping: Life before the showroom.

Updated: Jan 25, 2019

The way people have used kitchen and bathrooms has changed drastically over the past century or so, and so has the way they design and shop for these spaces.

In the good old days, what good were fancy appliances and hardware if there was no electricity or running water? Both kitchens and bathrooms were basic rooms with just enough space for the bare necessities. No one was running out to the store to buy a new sink or stove; in many cases, items were hand-made and if they were manufactured, they were meant to last decades.

We covered the history of kitchens and bathrooms in the past two blogs: check them out here and here.

The changes in technology that introduced modern conveniences into the home, like refrigerators, toilets, faucets, and the many things we take for granted in the 21st century, were the same changes in technology that made it easier for these products to be manufactured and distributed.

As items became more affordable, a whole market was born- and in the early days, that industry was run from catalogues. Heavy, thin-papered books filled with page after page of items available for purchase sold everything from clothing to farm supplies to entire houses. Consumers could buy from huge catalogues, like the famous Sears-Roebuck catalogue, and items would show up at your door.

Cast-iron cook stoves from a 1900 Sears catalogue. The one on the left was a deal for $13.95. (That's about $400 today).

If you think about it, it really isn’t so different from the online shopping world we live in today!

Did you know: Sears sold nearly 75,000 house kits from their catalogues between 1908 and 1940, and some of them are still lived in today!

Of course, it wasn’t only the big department stores that were in on the catalogue game- as we can see from early ads for bathrooms and kitchens, companies like Kohler and Standard Plumbing (which we know these days as American Standard) had their own catalogues.

There were even payment plan options and detailed instructions for all the hardware you needed to put your new fixtures together.

At the very back of the catalogue, the company notes that while shopping from the catalogue is easy and convenient, the best thing to do is to visit a Standard Showroom (all of which are listed in the back).

Enameled Lavatories (a fancy way to say toilet) from a 1930s Standard Plumbing catalogue.

From the catalogue:

“Visit a Standard Showroom, if possible. That is the most satisfactory way to select plumbing fixtures. Then you can see the actual fixtures and make comparisons, there you can discuss your problems with experienced “Standard” attendants, there you can secure help in originating color schemes and in developing pleasing bathroom arrangements.”

Hardware options for the bathroom and a page featuring a dishwasher, both from a 1930s Standard Plumbing catalogue. The dishwasher comes with a whipper attachment for extra convenience!

It doesn’t sound too different from what showrooms are saying to clients today! We are still encouraging homeowners to visit a physical space where they can see, touch and experience products before buying them. The importance of having someone to speak to about hardware and design choices hasn't changed either.

Why? Well, catalogues and e-commerce are convenient, but there is no substitute for the human connection that can be made in a physical showroom.

Next time we will dive deeper into the evolution of the showroom. How exactly did we go from catalogues and early plumbing showrooms to the high-end consumer-oriented kitchen and bath showrooms we have today?

While you're waiting for the next blog, find out what the best showrooms do to stand out in today's competitive market.


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