Sears, Roebuck and Company is a retail giant with 19th-century roots as a mail-order business operating in rural America. Sears grew into one of the nation’s largest corporations, redefining the American shopping experience in the process. Its 130-year history embodies the rise and fall of American consumer culture. Here’s how Sears became an American retail icon.
In 1886, Minnesota railway station agent Richard W. Sears bought a shipment of watches that a local jeweler refused to sign for. He established a side business selling the watches to other station agents. Sears quit his railway job a few months later and established the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis.
He moved the business to Chicago the following year. An ad he had placed in a Chicago newspaper brought watchmaker Alvah C. Roebuck into the business, and by 1893 the successful partnership officially became Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Sears and Roebuck quickly expanded the business into a general mail-order catalogue that catered to America’s enormous 19th-century rural population—roughly two-thirds of Americans lived in rural areas in the late 1890s.
Local general stores were typically high-priced and offered little selection. The Sears catalogue gave America’s farm families a lot of options at a lower cost and often included delivery.
The Sears and Roebuck mail order business quickly took off. The Sears catalogue contained more than 500 pages of merchandise by the late 1890s. Rural Americans could now purchase hundreds of different items—shoes, women’s garments, wagons, fishing tackle, furniture, china, musical instruments, firearms and bicycles—by mail.
Chicago clothing manufacturer Julian Rosenwald bought the company in 1895, though Sears remained president. (Roebuck resigned due to poor health.)
The company needed capital for its rapidly expanding business. In 1906, Rosenwald and Sears sold stock on the open market. Sears has been publicly owned and traded company ever since.
Sears took advantage of new homebuilding materials and construction techniques at the turn of the twentieth century. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold 70,000 to 75,000 pre-fab kit homes by mail order.
Mass-produced materials lowered manufacturing costs. Consumers could purchase a small bungalow for as little as $450.
Sears Modern Homes typically arrived with a detailed instruction manual and two boxcars worth of building materials.
Kit homes used drywall, asphalt shingles, and “balloon” style light-frame construction to cut down on the cost of skilled labor and allow for D.I.Y. installation. Due to their high-quality materials and practical design, many Sears homes are still in use.
Sears Wish Book
The first Sears Christmas Wish Book catalogue came out in 1933. The catalogue contained toys and other holiday gifting merchandise.
Items featured in the first catalogue included the popular Miss Pigtails doll, Lionel electric train sets, a Mickey Mouse watch, boxes of chocolate and even live singing canaries.
The catalogue, which arrived in mailboxes in late August or early September, soon became a holiday tradition with warm, colorful Christmas scenes decorating the cover.
The Wish Book began to diminish in size during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as merchandizing shifted to online purchases.
As increasing numbers of Americans moved to cities in the twentieth century, Sears faced the loss of rural consumers. City dwellers with easy access to a variety of stores had little need for huge mail order catalogues.
The company responded by opening its first brick and mortar department store in 1925 on Chicago’s West Side.
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Early Sears department stores typically opened in working class neighborhoods outside of the major city shopping districts.
Sears was one of the first department stores to cater to men as well as women by selling tools and hardware. Its merchandise emphasized durability and practicality over fashion, and its store layout allowed customers to select goods without the aid of a clerk.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sears began to shift its focus from urban to suburban markets. The Sears name soon became synonymous with the suburban shopping experience. Their large department stores anchored shopping malls all over the country, and Sears catered to suburban motorists by expanding their automotive services.
Sears announced plans to build a new headquarters in downtown Chicago in 1969. At the time, Sears was the largest retailer in the world with approximately 350,000 employees.
When it opened in 1973, the 110-story Sears Tower, at 1,454 feet in height, dominated the Chicago skyline as the tallest building in the world—a distinction it held for 25 years.
In 2009, the building was renamed Willis Tower after a London-based insurance broker that now leases a portion of the structure.
Sears, Roebuck and Company gave birth to several iconic brands over the years. Some of them include:
Kenmore Appliances: The brand name first appeared on a sewing machine sold in the Sears catalogue in 1913. Sears introduced the first Kenmore washing machine in 1927 and the first Kenmore vacuum cleaner in 1932. Throughout the 1970s, Sears continued to expand its Kenmore brand to household appliances including refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners.
Craftsman: Sears acquired the Craftsman trademark and sold its first Craftsman tools in 1927. The brand’s early customers were mostly farmers. Craftsman later branched out into lawnmowers, electronic, portable power tools and even electric razors to serve a growing suburban base.
Allstate Insurance: Sears founded Allstate Insurance Company in 1931. Allstate offered low rates on auto insurance to consumers through the Sears mail-order catalogue and later through sales booths in its retail stores. The company became completely independent in 1995 after Sears divested its Allstate stock to shareholders.
Discover Card: Sears added financial services to its repertoire in the 1980s. In 1985, the company introduced the Discover Card. It was the first to offer cash rewards to customers based on how much the credit card was used.
Discover Card became wildly popular—within four years 20 million people had the card. By the end of the decade, credit operations made up a big part of Sears’ revenue. The company sold off Discover Card and other financial operations in the mid-nineties.
Decline Of Sears
In 1991, Walmart surpassed Sears as the nation’s largest retailer. Throughout the nineties, Sears faced increasing competition from numerous big-box stores that offered even lower prices than Sears.
Big-box retailer Kmart bought Sears in 2004. Wall Street hedge-fund manager Edward Lampert oversaw the merger and became CEO of the newly created Sears Holdings Corporation.
Over the next decade and a half, Sears lost half its revenue and laid off nearly 175,000 people as it battled to keep up with the advance of online retailers.
In 2017 alone, Sears Holdings closed more than 350 Sears and Kmart stores nationwide, with an additional 60 to be closed in early 2018.
Sears sold its iconic Craftsman brand to Stanley Black and Decker in March of 2017. Later that year, Sears announced a deal to sell Kenmore appliances through online retailer Amazon.
Analysts ranked Sears one of the most likely retailers to file for bankruptcy in 2018.
The Rise and Fall of Sears. Smithsonian Magazine.
The Incredible Shrinking Sears. The New York Times.
Population: 1790 to 1990. U.S. Census Bureau.
Sears History—1886. Sears Archives.
Sears History—1887. Sears Archives.
The Sears Christmas Wish Book, A Holiday Tradition. Sears Archives.
What is a Sears Modern Home? Sears Archives.
Sears Mail Order Homes. Modular Today.
Sears to Sell the Iconic Craftsman Brand After 90 Years. Popular Mechanics.
When Sears, the Facebook of its era, launched its IPO. Chicago Tribune.
Another 60-plus Sears, Kmart stores set to close in January 2018. USA Today.