Mail Order Catalog Business Is 178 Years Old and Counting

Select catalogs and pamphlets from Spiratone, once the United States’ largest supplier of photographic accessories.

By Jonathan Spira on 19 August 2023
  • Share

This past Friday was Mail Order Catalog Day, a commemoration that celebrates the traditional mail-order catalog that has been in use for over 100 years.  Mail order allows people to select products they want via a printed catalog and mail in an order form to the company.  Tiffany’s Blue Book is considered the first true mail-order catalog, having been introduced in 1845.  It is still in operation.  Thonet, of Vienna, is the second oldest, dating back to 1859, and it, too, is still in existence.

Pryce Jones was not only the world’s third mail order catalog but the United Kingdom’s first.  It made its debut in 1861 but was subsumed by another company in the 1930s.

Finally, my father’s company, Spiratone, although not one of the first since it was founded in the 1940s as a photo-finishing company and began selling by mail in the latter part of that decade, did make its mark on mail order.

Spiratone became the largest supplier of photographic accessories in the United States by the 1970s.  It was known for innovative lenses, filters, lighting, and darkroom products of its own design.  It was one of the first “small businesses” to have a toll-free telephone number, this in the late 1960s (800 221-9695) and it accepted credit cards so early in the cycle of adoption of paying by card that its catalogues had to warn customers not to mail the credit card along with the order form, as people were only accustomed to handing the shop clerk the card when making a purchase.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News