Do Your Ancestors Have Mail-Order Tombstones from Sears?
Do your ancestors have Sears mail-order tombstones on their final resting places? They might! When our great-grandparents needed just about anything, they turned to the Sears catalog. It was the Amazon of their day.
At first, Sears catalogs were limited, featuring only jewelry and watches. But by 1895, when the business was just three years old, the catalog had grown to 532 pages.
Whether families needed to buy a trap for a mouse or a kit to build a house, they could find it in the Sears catalog.
They could buy bicycles, rubber, sheets, groceries, sewing machines, tools, and spring chicks. There were bottles of elixirs to cure just about anything – some of which worked only because they contained harmful substances like opium, arsenic, or cocaine. They could even buy a live monkey from the Sears catalog!
One of my ancestors (whose name shall remain private for obvious reasons) said that the Sears catalog came in handy as toilet paper when working out in the barn.
In fact, pages of the catalog served as toilet paper for much of America before toilet paper became mainstream. (It was better than corn cobs!)
But, I digress! As our ancestors sat in the outhouse, just reading (and doing whatever one does in an outhouse), they may have come across one of the most surprising products in the Sears catalog: affordable tombstones.
Mail-Order Tombstones and Monuments
In 1902, “Sears, Roebuck & Co. Tombstones and Monuments Catalog” was published with prices for a moderate tombstone ranging from $4.88 to $40.
Sears’ prices were significantly lower than rates charged at traditional funeral parlors. This allowed consumers to participate in the elite practice of ordering custom grave markers.
Bargain Rates for Mail-Order Tombstones
In a section titled, “Direct from Quarry to Cemetery,” the Sears catalog boasted: “Prices within the reach of your pocketbook and in designs heretofore possible only to the wealthy.”
Gravestones had to be paid in full in advance of being shipped, but they were still an amazing deal. Families could purchase a white granite marker for as low as $4.68 or a slanted barre granite marker for $6.50.
Even distant rural customers could afford a monument for their family members thanks to railroads. It was very economical to ship a tombstone by rail across the country, averaging only 75 cents to $1.50 per 100 pounds.
Even Italian marble was economical for mail-order tombstones.
Love Your Mail-Order Tombstones – Guaranteed!
The guarantee for mail-order tombstones was nothing to shake a stick at either. It read: “After you have placed this monument in your cemetery, shown it to your friends, neighbors, and family, if you find that it is not all and more than we have claimed for it, lettered exactly as you have instructed us, has arrived free from mar, scratch, or injury from the railroad company, you can hold it subject to our disposal and we will not only refund you all the money you have remitted us for it but will include any freight charges you have paid.” (Sorry about the “run-on” sentence. It belongs to Sears, not me.)
A Fence or a Bench
Whether you needed a fence or a bench for your family’s final resting place, all you had to do was flip through the pages of the Sears catalog.
Symbols on Mail-Order Tombstones
Families could choose from a variety of gravestone symbols for their loved one’s mail-order tombstones, such as these with lambs or the gates of heaven on them.
Those who had the means could purchase larger headstones with unique designs. The tombstone on the left is made to appear as if it is still in the process of being hand-carved from a giant rock. (Presumedly, that would trick people into thinking you did not buy mail-order tombstones!)
It was probably a good idea to have the family spelling bee champion fill out the order forms for mail-order tombstones. Otherwise, you could go through a lot of pencil erasers trying to change misspelled names on a granite headstone!
Sometimes the dates were wrong too. In fact, most genealogists know of at least one family headstone that has an incorrect date on it. (Or maybe that was just Great-Aunt Susie trying to make herself a few years younger!?)
Sears catalogs offered portraits of the deceased printed on porcelain discs. This replaced the practice of photos printed on paper and placed beneath glass which were prone to leaking and water damage.
Marble Angels and Cradles
Marble cradles (right page, center) could be ordered from Sears catalogs. They were patterned after a French style of gravestone.
The upright portion was engraved with names and dates and the “cradle” or box was planted with flowers like these from a cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
Military and Fraternity Emblems on Mail-Order Tombstones
Our ancestors could choose from a variety of military emblems for their mail-order tombstones.
Setting the Mail-Order Tombstones
The Sears catalog included instructions for setting the mail-order tombstones. Some cemeteries had railway lines that ran right to the cemetery so the monuments could be delivered by train. Others had to arrange to have the gravestones picked up by horse and wagon from the railroad station.
Out of Business
In 1993, Sears discontinued its catalogs altogether, and bargain headstones haven’t been available by mail-order order since.
So grab a tissue, and let’s take a moment to mourn the tombstone catalog (along with Sears itself).
Undertaker Advertisements of the 1800s
Volunteers are Needed to Photograph Gravestones!
We need your help with taking gravestone photos to help preserve history! When photos are taken with the BillionGraves mobile app, each picture is automatically tagged with GPS coordinates.
This allows families to easily find their ancestor’s final resting place at the cemetery so they can grow their family tree. It also allows future volunteers to see exactly what has already been photographed and what still needs to be done.
If you would like to volunteer to take gravestone photos with your smartphone click HERE to get started. You are welcome to take photos of gravestones at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed.
If you still have questions after you have checked out the resources above, you can email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com.
Would you like to lead a group in documenting a cemetery? Email us at Volunteer@billiongraves.com and we’ll be happy to send you some great tips!
Happy Cemetery Hopping!
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