The competition among retail stores is brutal; it always has been. Most people are familiar with the names JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, Marshall Fields, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and Sears. Most of these stores have been operating for one hundred years or longer. Some like Macy’s have given us iconic institutions like a Thanksgiving Day Parade, or like Sears who gave us the tallest building in the US at the time. Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer was
an advertising creation of Montgomery Ward who, more importantly, also started the catalog mail order service. This business model would be copied by Sears and Roebuck. Sears would become so successful at it they eventually rose to be the biggest retailer in the United States, a title they would hold from the 1920s until 1989. Sears would actually play an important role in the history of the United States, and even as they currently struggle to stay in business they have made a lasting impression on the history of America.
The Internet is to Amazon as the Mail was to Sears
The 1900s in the United States is going to see the end of what many call the Wild West period. Millions of Americans were living in rural areas with very few of the amenities city dwellers enjoyed. Sears would build his empire on the desire for quality goods otherwise not available to these people. Modeling the idea that Ward pioneered, Sears would send catalogs out to rural homes offering thousands of goods they could order. The items were shipped out and they could pick them up at the local train station. Sears was instrumental in bringing city comforts to the rural population of America. It evened the social divide between farmers and city folk. People could buy almost anything from Sears. Clothes, veterinary supplies, hubcaps, or even houses were all offered for sale among the pages. While Sears helped make America by helping to break a social divide between rural and urban people in the United States, they would play another big role in breaking a different divide in America.
Through the Mail, No One Can See the Color of Your Skin
The first half of the twentieth century in America was marked by a deep racial divide. This was the height of the Jim Crow era when African Americans were legally second class citizens. They were not afforded the same rights as non-colored citizens. Not only was the discrimination legal, but there was also the de-facto discrimination. Businesses did not have to treat non-white customers with any form of equality. African Americans were barred from sitting at lunch counters with whites or using the same doors as whites to enter buildings. With zero legal protection, there were limited options for African Americans to have a positive shopping experience. Enter the Sears catalog. Ordering merchandise through the mail was a colorless experience. The people filing the orders had no way of knowing if the customer was white, black, or brown. This allowed African Americans to shop within the relative safety of their homes. They had access to the same items that whites had access too. They didn’t have to settle for poor treatment and inferior goods at the local store, they could get quality merchandise through the mail. Everyone was equal in the processing room of Sear’s warehouse.
Sears may not be around much longer. Wards closed its last store about fifteen years ago, and Sears may be following suit. When the last store closes its doors and turns off the lights for the last time a chapter of American history will close with it. Sears might get a passing mention in a few history classes, but its contributions to the history of the United States will go mostly ignored. These are the stories that we can not afford to lose, and that we should not allow being forgotten.