Sears, Roebuck & Company’s ties to Chicago go deep: the iconic American retailer, founded in 1886 by Richard W. Sears, launched its operations in Chicago the following year after its startup in Minneapolis as a watch company. Sears teamed up with watchmaker Alvah Roebuck on Dearborn and Randolph Streets in Chicago, and the firm soon grew into a general merchandise mail order company, and eventually, a well-known chain of retail stores. It’s called the Windy City home ever since.
Locals and tourists alike still refer to its landmark headquarters building as Sears Tower, eschewing the Willis name. The company’s first catalog — which eventually earned the affectionate monikers “Wish Book” and “Big Book” — debuted at the same time. One year ago, the company filed for bankruptcy, resulting in a rash of store closings, and as of now Sears’ future is uncertain. However, one thing is for sure: the Sears catalog set the bar for the mail order merchandise business, and it can be argued that it was comparable to the Amazon.com of its day.
“A Mirror of Our Times”
In 1943, the Sears News Graphic declared that the tome “serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” In the late 1880s, the time was ripe for the mail order business with America’s western expansion and the growth of the railroad industry. The postal service classified catalogs as “aids in the dissemination of knowledge” which earned them a postage rate of a mere one cent per pound. In fact, it was on the back of the mail order business that Sears built his empire; he didn’t actually open a brick-and-mortar store until some 30 years after the catalog’s premier issue!
The Sears catalog became such a part of the country’s collective consciousness that the government used it for propaganda purposes here and abroad during wartime. Thousands of catalogs were issued to American soldiers both on the front and recovering in hospitals, a sort of care package from home. Even President Franklin Roosevelt was quoted as saying that the most effective way to combat communism was to give them a good dose of capitalism in the form of Sears catalogs. It did not go unnoticed by the Soviets, either – in 1981, that year’s edition was one of 300 works displayed in a cultural exhibit meant to educate comrades about our country.
Stars: They’re Just Like Us
The long life of the catalog made it a prime vehicle for individuals seeking fame and fortune. Several aspiring actresses were early models for the catalog, including Susan Hayward, Lauren Bacall, silent film star Gloria Swanson, supermodel Cheryl Tiegs and Stephanie Powers. And while it’s a legend in and of itself that R.W. Sears wrote every single line of copy in the early issues, when he retired a series of well-known craftsmen took over: author Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) penned some lines, artist Norman Rockwell painted covers, and even actors and athletes like Roy Rogers and Ted Williams promoted the latest offerings.
Hubcaps and Houses and Hardware…Oh My!
The early catalogs expanded from offering just watches and jewelry to hawking everything from sewing machines to saddles to men’s and children’s clothing. In 1896, R.W. Sears added a spring and fall version and upped the size, and for the first time, charged a fee for the catalog. He justified the 25-cent cost by promising to apply it to any order over $10. In that year, he also issued an open invitation for all customers to visit the Chicago headquarters.
In 1897 Sears added a color section, featuring shoes available in black, brown and red, and touted the Edison Graphophone Talking Machine. It was this year that they also introduced the “club order program” which urged customers to pool their orders with neighbors, friends and family to share in savings. Early adopters of modern technology, the optigraph moving picture machine debuted in the book in 1898, including shows depicting such current events as the Klondike gold fields.
The 1899 catalog’s focus was on housewares, featuring color pictures of furniture, carpets, and china. You could even buy everything you needed to set up a theatre for paying customers: the “Special Lecture Outfits” included a projector, screen, promotional posters, and even tickets. Fun fact: the optigraph equipment worked with electricity or a gas process for illumination. As it turns out, limes were one of the ingredients used in the gas version, giving rise to the oft-used phrase, “in the limelight.”
Welcome to the 20th Century
The 1900s saw the catalog take on interactive features, incorporating “touch and feel” textiles. The 1905 issue offered textured wallpaper samples and swatches of material from men’s suits offered by the retailer. The following year, the company added paint swatches, and in 1908, (the last year that R.W. was associated with Sears before retiring) both wallpaper and paint sample books were distributed to customers.
From the advent of the motorcar, Sears was a pioneer in automotive tools and parts. From the 1920s onward, you could even buy the cars themselves via the catalog. In the course of its long history, the company proffered every conceivable mode of transportation, from wagons to tractors, to bicycles to motorcycles.
Sears is credited by historians as being an innovative trailblazer of its day, as well as being a “disruptor of racial and identity politics,” largely due to the widespread availability of the catalog.
A professor of history at Cornell University, Louis Hyman, describes on Twitter the democratizing power of the catalog in the American South during the Jim Crow era:
“The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord.
Black families could buy without asking permission.
Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!”
Now some 300-plus pages, the Sears catalog became the general store for rural America, for both farmers and black customers alike, providing a much-welcomed alternative to bearing the indignity and interrogation of local shopkeepers questioning whether they should have an item or not. It also filled a huge void over the years, as there was a dearth of stores on the prairie; every year, mothers purchased their children’s school clothes and other necessities through the Book.
One of the features that made the Sears catalog so unique was its wide variety of products that could be purchased, all from one source. You could stock your farmyard with animals like chickens that were delivered right to your door (top that, Amazon!) Hundreds of food items from all ethnicities were there for the taking: pickled pigs’ feet, herring, exotic ginger, and more. American housewives could stock their pantries with essentials like flour and lard.
The retailer even pursued its customer long after they were gone – literally. They featured the latest in funereal finery, including both simple and elaborate tombstones and monuments, in special inserts in the catalog. A list of Bible verses was conveniently included in the back of the book to assist in customers’ selections.
The older Sears catalogs offered a cornucopia of cures for every ailment imaginable. Complexion problems? Take arsenic wafers. On your last nerve? Opiates will do the trick. Remedies like Alka-Seltzer that have stood the test of time were also available from the Book. They even provided an in-home eye test in the catalog to determine your vision needs.
Perhaps the most ambitious of all the Sears catalog offerings was the mail order home kit. First advertised in the 1908 catalog, it began as a way for the retailer to boost sales in its lagging lumber department. Interest boomed, and they soon offered more than two dozen designs, including the all-steel Lustron Home. Many companies and communities often bought these prefab kits in bulk like Standard Oil did for its Carlin, Illinois mineworkers. It’s estimated that more than 70,000 Americans built Sears-bought homes, and thousands of them are still in existence today, including more than 200 in Elgin, Illinois alone. What goes around, comes around — ironically, tiny home, or microhome, kits are some of the most popular items available for purchase online today.
The catalog was a rite of passage for many pubescent Americans. For many young men (and women), the act of thumbing through the lingerie section marked their first real exploration of sexuality. Ads with photos touting ladies’ bras and panties generated many a nervous giggle, and could be considered the closest thing to forbidden fruit to the youths and their ever-watchful parents.
End of an Era
In 1993, the company made the no-doubt difficult decision to stop producing the general catalog. Sears Tower sold in 1994, and the very next year, Amazon.com shipped its premier book. The Sears Christmas catalog went online at Wishbook.com a year prior to the official Sears website launch. The company then merged with Kmart in 2005 and saw a return to profitability, albeit a brief one. By the time it filed for bankruptcy the retail giant had lost more than $11 billion since 2011, despite the hundreds of store closures. Closures that were attributed to mounting competition from big-box stores and, of course, Amazon.com.
Kristen Lewis Renner is a Chicago-based freelance writer and personal chef. When she was coming of age in the suburbs of St. Louis in the late ‘70s, she and her family lived in a Sears metal home that was the envy of all her friends.
A Magna Cum Laude graduate of the highly-esteemed University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, Kristen’s first job post-college was as a TV reporter/anchor. Today, the Chicago resident is president/owner of her marketing company, WordSmith Communications, and she recently launched a second business, The Bryn Mawr Bistro, offering her services to the community as a personal chef.