The Massive Harrods Catalogue from 1912 Gets Digitized: Before Amazon, Harrods Offered “Everything for Everyone, Everywhere”

A cou­ple years ago, obit­u­ar­ies began appear­ing online for the depart­ment store Sears after the 130-year-old Amer­i­can com­pa­ny announced its bank­rupt­cy. Many of the trib­utes focused on Sears, Roe­buck & Co’s cat­a­log, and for good rea­son. Their mas­sive mail-order busi­ness, the Ama­zon of its day, trans­formed the U.S., sell­ing gui­tars to Delta blues and rock and roll musi­cians and ship­ping thou­sands of build-it-your­self hous­es to rur­al home­stead­ers and sub­ur­ban­ites. The sheer reach and scope of the Sears’ cat­a­log can seem over­whelm­ing…. That is, until we turn to the 1912 Har­rods for Every­thing.

This 1,525-page cat­a­logue from London’s world-famous depart­ment store, Har­rods, does seem to mean every­thing, with over 15,000 prod­ucts avail­able for pur­chase at the store’s loca­tion, by mail, or by phone (“any­thing, at any time, day or night”).

You can see the enor­mous mon­u­ment to com­merce for your­self at Project Guten­berg. The cat­a­logue took 13 years to scan. “Some idea of the vast quan­ti­ty of items that Har­rods stocked or had avail­able can be tak­en from the gen­er­al index,” notes Eric Hut­ton, one of the vol­un­teer edi­tors on the project, “which runs for 68 pages, five columns to a page.”

Men and women could order cus­tom-tai­lored cloth­ing, fine jew­el­ry, clocks, watch­es, fur­ni­ture. Nat­u­ral­ists and hunters could have their tro­phies dressed and mount­ed. Police­men and, well, any­one, could order pis­tols, “knuck­le dusters,” and hand­cuffs. “You could also hire bands or musi­cians, plus tents or mar­quees for out­door gath­er­ings. You could rent steam, elec­tric, or petrol launch­es to go down a riv­er, or, if you set your sights fur­ther afield, there were ‘explor­ing, sci­en­tif­ic and shoot­ing expe­di­tions… com­plete­ly equipped and pro­vi­sioned for any part of the world”… per­haps the Edwar­dian British ver­sion of the Sears House.

A MetaFil­ter user points out how much glob­al­iza­tion and empire play into the mar­ket­ing. These are “not just lux­u­ry goods but com­modi­ties. I noticed wheat could come from at least three con­ti­nents…. Over and over it explains how Har­rods will out­fit any­one abroad who needs a social or mil­i­tary or explorato­ry uni­form: tele­graph Har­rods for shoe buck­les appro­pri­ate to your sta­tions.” Har­rods also repeat­ed­ly empha­sizes they will ship any­where in the world. Colo­nial offi­cials in India or Ugan­da could live like kings. We must con­fess, we doubt this mer­chan­dise was tru­ly meant for every­one.

This was also a time when mir­a­cle cures and var­i­ous unsci­en­tif­ic treat­ments abound­ed. “You could buy things like chlo­ro­form or throat pastilles in dozens of vari­eties,” notes Hut­ton, “even those con­tain­ing cocaine!”

A few of the com­modi­ties fea­tured in Har­rods for Every­thing are a lot hard­er to come by these days. Some of them, like the pages of guns, are easy to get in the US but not so read­i­ly avail­able in the UK and many of its for­mer colonies. (Though you can find cat­a­logues for just about any­thing if you look hard enough.)

But aside from cer­tain obvi­ous his­tor­i­cal dif­fer­ences, the cat­a­logue isn’t that much dif­fer­ent from the pages of online retail­ers who will also sell you almost any­thing, at any time of day, and ship it to you any­where in the world. What we thought of as unprece­dent­ed inno­va­tion was com­mon­place in the days of Queen Vic­to­ria, only ship­ping took a lot longer. Har­rods’ uni­ver­sal­iz­ing Latin mot­to even sounds par­tic­u­lar­ly mod­ern, in Eng­lish, at least: Omnia Omnibus Ubique, or “every­thing for every­one, every­where.” Yet much, too, has changed. Har­rods, out­fit­ter of the British Empire, is now owned by the state of Qatar.

See the ful­ly scanned 1,525-page Har­rods for Every­thing cat­a­logue at Project Guten­berg.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Sears Sold 75,000 DIY Mail Order Homes Between 1908 and 1939, and Trans­formed Amer­i­can Life

How the Sears Cat­a­log Dis­rupt­ed the Jim Crow South and Helped Give Birth to the Delta Blues & Rock and Roll

What It Cost to Shop at the Gro­cery Store in 1836, and What Goods You Could Buy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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