Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Sears, Roebuck, and Company

Founded in 1886 by Richard Warren Sears (1863-1914) and Alvah C. Roebuck (1864-1948), Sears Roebuck began as a mail order service to sell goods to people who lived on farms far from any major city or small town. Sears wasn't the first to do this. Way back in 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward (1844-1913) began publishing his leaflets to the same target group, which also led to a large catalog in 1883. Sears began its big catalog in 1896.

Sears had its own manufacturers producing many of the products it sold. It also borrowed some of the ideas from Montgomery Ward. The idea, "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back," was invented by A. Montgomery Ward. Both firms were based in Chicago.

It was in 1925 that Sears had its first retail store. Ward's didn't get one until the following year. Sears became known as the World's Largest Store. It bought a radio station, WLS, and later sold it to the Prairie Farmer magazine. The Sears advertisements continued being broadcast on that station.

One could buy a house from Sears: The house came in a kit. If a customer had a small parcel of land, Sears sent all the materials needed to build a frameless bungalow or cottage. What was the saying? "Just add water"? These Craftsman houses became famous. In Riverside, California (my birthplace), students at Polytechnic High School (then all-male) built many of the residences in the downtown section. Today, more than 80 years later, they are considered classics.

Sears began selling Allstate Insurance in 1933. In the 1952, when the automotive firm Kaiser-Frazer had trouble selling its compact car, the Henry J, Sears began selling them under the Allstate monogram.

Between 1908 and 1964, Sears manufactured sports equipment (including rifles and bicycles) under the J.C. Higgins banner. James C. Higgins (d. 1950) was an accountant at Sears in Chicago from 1898 to 1930.

Like most department stores, Sears had a candy counter and a dining area. These lasted into the 1990s.

The last products Sears tried were credit cards (Discover) and bank accounts (Sears Bank).

One of the signs that Sears was going through tough times was the cancellation of its catalog.

When I was growing up, these catalogs were in my house:
  • Montgomery Ward
  • Sears Roebuck
  • Aldens
  • Western Auto (more than auto parts)
  • Spiegel
  • J.C Penney (though we didn't get it in California until the late 1970s)

Except for Western Auto, which had very limited clothing selections, these catalogs were the closest thing to pornography in my world as I was growing up, at least in my room. However, Ward's, Sears, and Spiegel either padded the model's clothes with tissue paper or airbrushed certain areas of the bodies. Not Aldens. They let you see everything. And like Playboy magazine, which was not doing full frontal pictures at this time, when the model wore panties, you saw her from the rear. There were no hipsters or bikinis at that time either. I guess I had to do without a lot of what kids take for granted today. They can see a lot more on cable TV when their parents go away... We could go to Stater Brothers and try to sneak a peak at the "men's magazines" there, but it was very risky... (Believe it or not, until I was in junior high, those mags were not hidden from children's view...)

You're probably wondering why I got semi-graphic at this point. I was thinking about the episode of the Waltons TV show when Grandpa had to spend some time without Grandma. So he kept a Sears catalog under his bed, turned to the women's undergarments section.

Sears canceled its catalog five years after Ward's canceled theirs. I tried to save the 1985 Christmas catalog, but I lost it on one of my moves. Sears canceled its catalog in 1993. Today the only catalogs left are J.C. Penney and Spiegel, although the latter seems more like a women's fashion magazine today.

Eventually, Sears sold off Discover and the bank. They even canceled their own credit card for a brief period. Sears was shedding parts of itself and it was hurting. The culprit was said to be Wal-Mart, although this was just the result of a changing world and competition. Consider that sixty years ago, there were seven major automobile manufacturers in the United States and today there are only three, and those might not last.

Sears ended up merging with Kmart, one of Wal-Mart's competitors, to form the Sears Holdings Corporation.

By the way, Sears still publishes a catalog in Canada, though it's extremely difficult to obtain in the United States.