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June 19, 2019

How the Sears catalog dominated the market and influenced American history

January 9, 2019
Seven copies of Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalogs dating back to 1926 were presented to the Colorado State Museum to be added to its collection of period catalogs. (Ed Maker / Denver Post via Getty Images)

Before Amazon became the one-stop shop for practically everything, there was the Sears catalog.

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With one-fifth of Americans as subscribers, the catalog dominated the market and impacted the lives of consumers beyond just their personal shopping needs.

From undermining the hierarchy of the Jim Crow era to changing the tune of music, Sears’ stake in American history holds true even as the company comes crashing down.

Black shoppers during Jim Crow era

The company’s catalogs revolutionized the way black southerners shopped. While stores would often be filled with racist signs and black customers would have to wait until white shoppers were done, the Sears catalog “undid the power of the storekeeper,” historian Louis Hyman said in a twitter thread. Customers could make purchases over the phone or by mail, allowing black families to buy without asking for permission or being subjected to blatant prejudice. “Let’s think about how retail is not just about buying things, but part of a larger system of power,” Hyman wrote. “Every act of power contains the opportunity, and the means, for resistance.”

City vs. rural life

Cover of a Sears Roebuck & Co. Consumer's Guide in 1900.
Cover of a Sears Roebuck & Co. Consumer’s Guide in 1900. (Bettmann / Bettmann Archive)

The catalog also shifted the living patterns in the country. Between 1880 and 1900 the majority of Americans were living on farms or in small towns, but cities were on the rise. Immigrants arriving from around the world were, in large, the reason behind the shift, yet Sears had its own impact. The catalog allowed more civilians to live in cities, as they could order and buy goods without actually having to go into a store. Nearly 50 years later, when Sears stores became a staple of malls, Americans trickled back out to the suburbs.

Sears dominates the market

Similar to how Sears struggled in the face of Amazon, the company was once the cause of turmoil for smaller storefronts. Mom-and-pop shops faced serious competition from the retailer when they opened their first store in 1925. At the end of World War II, when American buying was on the rise, the company continued to grow with more store openings and sales reaching $1 billion.

House-building kits

Though mostly known for selling appliances, at one point Sears tapped into the real estate market. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold around 70,000 to 75,000 homes through their mail-order program. Customers could choose between different styles and would then be shipped the tools to build it.

Related Gallery

Looking back at the reign of Sears across the U.S. and around the world

The kits would often incorporate central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity — all new developments in home design that Sears helped popularize through the program.

The guitars of Delta blues musicians and teenage rockers

The company even had its hands in the music scene. Numerous artists of Delta blues, one of the earliest-known styles of blues music, would purchase cheap guitars from the catalogs, according to Chicago Magazine. Most notably, Muddy Waters and B.B. King used the Sears catalog to kick start their career. Waters bought a guitar from the company and King snagged an instructional book on the basics of the instrument through Sears. As the sound of guitars transitioned to electric, so did Sears. The company began selling their own cheap versions, selling many to youngsters looking to get a start in their garage.

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