I recently ran across an article on Facebook and wanted to share, (I could not find the original poster but tried) . I found it very inspirational as I learned more about how the Sears Catalog allowed African-Americans, during the dark times of Jim Crow~ access to goods via mail delivery that they might not have had access to previously~ also at a more affordable, fair price (white owned businesses often gouged prices for Blacks which was totally wrong and unfair to offer the same product to different groups of people for different prices!) This sort of reminded me of how the internet has begun leveling the playing field for people of all types, cultures and colors. I couldn’t help but draw the conclusions and I thought there are some similarities here. Drop a comment and let us know what you think.
SEARS & ROEBUCK: BLACK HISTORY FACTS
With a network of more than 870 full-line department stores and 1,300 freestanding specialty stores in the United States and Canada, Sears, Roebuck and Co. is the world’s fourth largest retailer. For more than a century Sears has provided consumers with top brand names synonymous with durability and quality. Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, Diehard car batteries, and WeatherBeater paint are a just a few of its most recognized products; Sears also provides a variety of competitively priced apparel for men, women, and children featuring its own brands (Canyon River Blues, Covington, TKS Basics) and such staples as Levi’s jeans and Nike athleticwear. A newer addition to its empire came with catalogue and online retailer Lands’ End, acquired in 2001.
Humble Beginnings: Late 1880s to 1914
Sears bears the name of Richard W. Sears, who was working as a North Redwood, Minnesota, freight agent for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad in 1886 when a local jeweler gave him an unwanted shipment of pocket watches rather than return them to the manufacturer. Sears sold them to agents down the line who then resold them at the retail level. He ordered and sold more watches and within six months made $5,000. He quit the railroad and founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis.
Business expanded so quickly that Sears moved to Chicago in 1887 to be in a more convenient communications and shipping center. Soon customers began to bring in watches for repairs. Since he knew nothing about fixing them, Sears hired Alvah Roebuck, a watch repairman from Indiana,
A shrewd and aggressive salesman–a colleague once said of him, “He could probably sell a breath of air”–Sears undersold his competition by buying up discontinued lines from manufacturers and passing on the discounts to customers. At various times from 1888 to 1891, thinking himself bored with the business, Sears sold out to Roebuck but came back each time.
In 1888 the company published the first of its famous mail-order catalogues. It was 80 pages long and advertised watches and jewelry. Within two years the catalogue grew to 322 pages, filled with clothes, jewelry, and such durable goods as sewing machines, bicycles, and even keyboard instruments. In 1894 the catalogue cover proclaimed Sears was the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth.”
The relationship between capitalism, white supremacy and civil rights is a fascinating one marked by boycotts, sit-ins and bus rides. All of these activities are centered on access to money and markets.
African-Americans who lived in the rural South during Jim Crow usually had to buy goods on credit from local white store owners, who would often gouge them. Then came the Sears catalog. It sold everything from clothes and furniture to cocaine. But it also gave black consumers access to goods at national prices. The enterprise was so successful, store owners would organize bonfires and burn the catalogs to avoid losing their black customers.
The company changed its name to its current form in 1893, but Alvah Roebuck, uncomfortable with his partner’s financial gambles, sold out his share two years later and remained with the firm as a repairman. Sears promptly found two new partners to replace Roebuck: local entrepreneur Aaron Nusbaum and Nusbaum’s brother-in-law, haberdasher Julius Rosenwald. The company recapitalized at $150,000, with each man taking a one-third stake. The company continued to prosper; when the cantankerous Nusbaum was forced to sell out in 1901 after clashing with Sears, his interest was worth $1.25 million.
There was little harmony between the two remaining partners, Rosenwald and Sears. Sears believed in continuous expansion and risk-taking; Rosenwald advocated consolidation and caution. Rosenwald also objected to his partner’s fondness for the hard sell in the catalogue and advertising copy. Had the Federal Trade Commission existed then, some of the company’s advertising practices probably would not have passed muster–but it should be mentioned that Richard Sears invented the unconditional money-back guarantee and stood by it.
In 1905 construction began on a new headquarters plant on Chicago’s west side to consolidate all of the company’s functions. To help raise the necessary capital, Sears went public in 1906. Yet Wall Street was leery of the incautious Richard Sears and he resigned as president in 1908 when it became clear he was obstructing the firm’s progress. He was appointed chairman, but his heart was never in the job and he retired in 1913, never having presided over a board meeting. Sears died the following year at the age of 50. Near the end of his life, he summarized his career as a merchant: “Honesty is the best policy. I know, I’ve tried it both ways.”
New Leadership and Growth: 1915 to the Late 1920s
Sears was now Julius Rosenwald’s company to run and he did it with such skill and success he became one of the richest men in the world. Sales rose sixfold between 1908 and 1920, and in 1911 Sears began offering credit to its customers at a time when banks would not even consider lending to consumers. During this time the company grew to the point where its network of suppliers, combined with its own financing and distribution operations, constituted a full-fledged economic system in itself. Rosenwald’s personal fortune allowed him to become a noted philanthropist–he gave away $63 million over the course of his life, much of it to Jewish causes and to improve the education of Southern blacks. As a result of the latter, he became a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute and a good friend of its founder, Booker T. Washington.
The depression of the early 1920s dealt Sears a sharp blow. In 1921 the company posted a loss of $16.4 million and omitted its quarterly dividend for the first time. Rosenwald responded by slashing executive salaries and even eliminated his own. He was also persuaded to donate 50,000 shares from his personal holdings to the company treasury to reduce outstanding capital stock and restore the firm’s standing with its creditors. Sears thus weathered the crisis and benefited from the general prosperity that followed.
In 2018,Sears filed for bankruptcy after 132 years in business. Louis Hyman, an author and professor of history and consumerism at Cornell, wrote a compelling thread on Twitter that explained how the Sears catalog empowered black consumers during Jim Crow. Mr. Hyman walked me through some of these ideas in the interview below, which has been edited.
Back When Sears Made Black Customers A Priority: An interview with Louis Hyman by
Your thread sort of positioned Sears as a radical commercial entity during Jim Crow.
A huge theme in my history of retail class is Jim Crow. Access for black people to competitive markets is pretty radical because a lot of the history of the relationship between black people and capitalism has been a monopoly relationship. Sears is not the story of would-be radicals trying to overthrow Jim Crow. It was about people trying to make some money, which is radical in a certain way, too.
Q. It seems easy for Americans to forget this kind of history.
A. I was really touched that so many black readers connected with this history. People were sharing their stories about their grandparents and the way in which they felt connected to people under Jim Crow. Obviously people recognize that being followed in a store today is not the same as Jim Crow, where if you step out of line or do the wrong thing you and your family could be murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. But I think the larger point is the exhaustion of having to deal with racist store owners, whether it’s the 1900s or 2018.
Q. What is the equivalent of consumer empowerment for people of color today?
A. It’s tricky. The thing about Jim Crow is that it’s not about shopping, it’s about white supremacy. Not in the sense that we understand it today, but in a very transparent way. That’s the difference. I think today the feeling that you can be who you are and buy what you want was most clearly expressed through trans people who are able to buy what they want to wear, even if it doesn’t fit people’s expectations for their bodies.
Q. Do your students think capitalism can be a form or empowerment for people of color?
All of my students feel like the ability to buy something is a pretty foundational right in our society. They’ll say, “Oh, maybe you people don’t have a right to a job, but I should have the ability to shop.” And when they see how that plays out in different ways for African-Americans, for women, gay people, it is pretty remarkable.
Q. Are your students thinking about things like wealth distribution and race?
A. Of course! What I like about it is I get the future ibankers of tomorrow who are like, “we need to have more efficient markets that are neoliberal and are not discriminatory.” And then you get the students who are on the left who are like, “we need to have a basic income, and capitalism is racism and racism is the patriarchy.” I like to have those students in conversation because I feel like that’s the conversation we need to be having.
Q. What kind of blowback did you get after your post?
A. People said that I argued capitalism is anti-racist, but that’s not true. All I’m saying is that in this one particular instance, this catalog helped some people in this way, and it’s an interesting way to understand the complexities of capitalism, particularly Jim Crow capitalism. It’s always surprising to me that white supremacy and consumer capitalism squared off. And in some small measure, white supremacy lost. And that’s really incredible because white supremacy was so powerful. It was this powerful organizing principle in American politics. That’s fascinating.
*sourced, not an original written piece, added comments here and there HLK