For the rural farmer, there was only one place to purchase goods — the general store. Even though the nation was switching to brand names and unique products, the farmer's store wouldn't necessarily have these products. Flour, crackers, material, all of these products came in bulk packages the general store clerk parcelled out to his customers. Rural farmers didn't have the luxuries of choosing between different versions of the same product. That is, until the mail-order catalogue hit their towns.
In the United States, the idea of Sears' catalogue was not revolutionary. People had been ordering furniture and supplies by mail since they first settled this country. However, all of those previous catalogues had been attached to a local store somewhere. It was the by-mail-only catalogue that was new in the 1870's. First started by Montgomery Wards in 1872, this catalogue offered rural farmers a chance to shake their backwards image and modernize.
By offering choices and brand names, the catalogues spread the culture of the city into the farmland. Now the farmers could aspire to meet the same level of "culture" as the rising middle class. Financially, this was a great time for the farmers. The technology allowed the farmer to plant a heavy cash crop. Previously, the farmer had a subsistence living style; they lived on the products they themselves grew, canned, wove. The heavy farm machinery allowed the farmers to cultivate more land, and to harvest the crop more quickly with fewer workers to pay. Rural residents now had time to spend enjoying different types of music, playing piano, mandolin, banjo, recording with a new gramophone, talking on the new telephone, reading book collections, and buy pre-sewn clothes. All these products were offered to them through the mail-order catalogues.
Wards' catalogue established a friendly tone with the customer. Customers were always welcome to tour the Wards factories in Chicago. Farmers could almost believe they were buying from a friend instead of a far away city. Sears adopted this tone, and increased it to the level of intimacy. It was probably this reason that Sears' success gradually overtook Wards.