When you could buy a monkey from the Sears mail-order catalog

This is a true story told to me by my neighbor's mother, Mary Alice, who grew up in South Texas after the Second World War. It was told to Mary Alice by her friend Guillermo, also known as Will.

"My friend Will told me about his aunt that lived in a small South Texas town named Taft that always made orders from the Sears mail-order catalog. This is around the late 1960s approximately. The orders would often arrive by train and be delivered to the post office or directly to the house, depending on the item. One day, the phone rang, and the person at the train depot told Will's uncle that a package had arrived for his wife. When the uncle requested a delivery, as was the custom, the railroad depot employee insisted the pick-up be done in person. Waiting at the depot, in a cage – that you could and had to purchase from Sears – was a monkey."

I had so many questions my neighbor's mother could not answer. Will has since passed away. More on the questions below.

Before wooden and then brick-and-mortar storefronts in shopping centers and malls across the US, the now bankrupt and defunct original superstore, Sears and Roebuck, started as a mail-order catalog for watches and later everything for the urban and rural home, farm, and anything in between. Everything. Even the house.

It turns out, you could even buy a monkey. Under the section titled "Pets the whole family can enjoy," and next to pigeons, rabbits, and canaries, was an advertisement for three types of monkeys.

"#10 Monkeys. Affectionate. Interesting, entertaining. Need cage (22) [item number for the cage, like a link embedded in a blog post] for feeding, sleeping. Pay twice regular express rate from Chicago, Ill."

There were three options, though you could not choose the sex as these animals were "state breed." For $49.87, you could purchase a "Ringtai­l. Whit face "organ-grinder's monkey." Grows big as a housecat. Shipping wt. 12 lbs." A Spider Monkey would cost a bit more at $54.47. "Dark face. Uses tail for climbing. Slightly larger than a ringtail. Shpg. wt. 12 lbs." The Squirrel Monkey was the least expensive at $32.87, the "size of a squirrel" and "the most active." That all three weighed 12 lbs probably means these were all young primates.

A note at the bottom of the page indicated, "All pets shipped humanely with food, water; not shipped outside Continental U.S. All are inspected, sound and healthy specimens."

Sears got into the monkey business – and the Mexican burro business – in 1956. In a December 28, 1955, New York Times article on the price increase in the 1956 catalog (approximately 2%), it was reported that "For the first time in any Sears catalogue live Mexican burros for the children [my emphasis] are offered. The Chicago and Kansas City editions also list hamsters, mynah birds and a variety of monkeys. Of the monkeys, the catalogue says, 'we include collar and chain with each monkey for easy handling."

So, let's monkey around with a few questions. Where did the Squirrel, Ringtail, and Spider Monkeys come from? Did Sears breed them? If not, who had the breeding contract? Either way, where was the place of birth? How many were bred? How many were sold? To whom? Where did they live? Could you purchase a monkey by layaway? When did all nationally circulated Sears catalogues sell monkeys? And the folks who ordered them, like Will's uncle's wife in Taft, Texas, what were their relationships like? Was there a care manual? How common was the mail-order monkey experience? Did monkeys escape? If so, where? How did Sears come up with these prices? What were the margins? What does "state breed" mean? Dittos for the Mexican burros.

For an "Entertaining and informative… portrait of Americans' relationships with the cats, dogs, birds, fishes, rodents, and other animals we call our own," check out Pets in America: A History by Katherine C. Grier.

For more on "Mail order monkeys & other crazy comic book ads," have a listen to this episode from the CBC Radio show Under the Influence with Terry O'Reilly.

Someone needs to write a book: Sears and Roebuck's Monkey Business.