On Monday, Sears filed for bankruptcy after 132 years of operation, spurring a wave of eulogies and sometimes outright sentimentalizing for the company that got its start as the R.W. Sears Watch Co. in Minneapolis and grew to become an iconic retail giant through its innovative catalog.
Prompted by the news, Professor Louis Hyman of Cornell University, a labor historian and author of Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, outlined a surprising piece of American history in a fascinating Twitter thread. Through the creation of its national catalog available to all Americans, and by allowing consumers to buy on credit, Sears revolutionized the way black Americans could shop by offering access without the threat of violence, inexpensive prices, and—perhaps most radical of all—choice.
I spoke to Hyman on the phone to get a more detailed understanding of Sears’s role in the intersection of race and American shopping history.
JEZEBEL: You teach a history of shopping course at Cornell that I wish I could take, and Sears is part of the curriculum. How important is the retailer in understanding the development of American commerce?
LOUIS HYMAN: Sears is extremely important. To understand America, you have to understand it was a rural country in the 19th century. Most Americans didn’t live in cities or towns until 1920. So how do you sell to them? The country store in small towns always had trouble, because they were very expensive. You had to keep an inventory that cost money. There weren’t a lot of people. When the catalog came in, it was like you could shop in the big city from the country.
The first big catalog was Montgomery-Ward. They tapped into this feeling of the cities exploiting the country, the first big populist movement of the 1870s—they called it the Original Grange catalog. Sears came along 20 years later and was basically like the Montgomery-Ward catalog, but offered credit. This is an important break, especially for African-Americans and for farmers. By the 1890s, there had been almost 20 years of steady economic decline for rural America. People were really hurting. This is when you see the rise of the People’s Party in the 1890s. Catalogs were amazing for Southern farmers and sharecroppers who may have never left the county in which they were born—they found themselves looking at the same thing that was for sale in Chicago and with prices that were the same as Chicago: cheap, affordable, national goods.
In the 20th century, Sears is important because by the 1960s it becomes an important way for middle class and working class Americans to get access to credit cards. Until roughly 1980, Sears was the place you went and got your first credit card. It was a place where you were able to get access to credit that you couldn’t get at other department stores, or banks like we have today. This is why you have an older generation so nostalgic for it. Sears was the first place they got to go shopping.
In your Twitter thread, you detail the pivotal role Sears played for black consumers in the era of Jim Crow. How were black Americans shopping prior to the distribution of national catalogs?
After Emancipation, most African-Americans enslaved in the Antebellum period were still living in the rural south and were still working as farmers and sharecroppers, which meant that they were living harvest to harvest. They ran up debt throughout the year. This wasn’t only true for African-Americans, it was also true for white farmers, but it’s even more intense for black farmers because there was the omnipresent threat of violence with the rise of the Klan in the 1870s. During Reconstruction, black Americans were caught in a debt relationship. The only place where they could shop was the local general store, which was often controlled or owned by the local landlord. It was a place they could get credit to get them through the year. It was also during the rise of Jim Crow, which starts in 1890 in Mississippi and expands around the country.
Jim Crow is about everyday racial hierarchy. It was everywhere. Where you went to the bathroom, where you shopped, where you went to see a movie. A lot of the regulation around Jim Crow was around consumption and shopping. For black people, when they went to a store, they had to wait until every white person was served. That sounds annoying, but to break out of that, to do anything outside of these rituals of difference, there was the possibility of violence. It’s not just about having to wait in line, it’s about knowing that if you try not to wait in line, you could be killed. So when black people went to shop, they went to shop under very unequal relationships. White shop owners who controlled the credit also controlled what they got: whether they got the same clothes or flour of white people. They usually didn’t.
Then catalogs come along—Sears in 1895, in the early years of Jim Crow. How does the Sears catalog affect black customers?
It’s revolutionary. Imagine you can only shop at one store, and when you go to that store, you and your family might be killed. Imagine that kind of monopoly—not just “they charged me too much,” but “they charged me too much and they could kill my children.” Imagine a catalog coming in the mail and you can buy anything: hats, clothes, shirts, pants, overalls, farm equipment, guitars, guns—imagine buying guns in the era of Jim Crow through the catalog and what that would mean to black Americans. And the prices are fair and credit, of course, is the real breakthrough—you can spend no money. It also undermines white control, shopkeeper control, and all other kinds of control.
That must anger white country store owners who want to impede black Americans’ access to the Sears catalog.
In a lot of places, the general store was also the post office, so they refused to take money orders or deliveries. There are so many ways they could stop people from ordering through the catalog. Sears tried to find ways around it by saying, “Talk directly to the postman, talk to any postman. Just try to find someone to write the orders however you can.” They tried to find ways to evade the control of the shop owner, which is important because a lot of freed Americans in the 1890s are illiterate. Reading was illegal during slavery. You also have a lot of immigrants, too, Swedish and German, and in Sears catalog was [a note that read] “we have people who speak all the languages.” So you could write in any language to Sears and get a reply, because they’re based in Chicago and everyone speaks every language in Chicago in 1900.
This is a pretty amazing thing. Store owners continue to resist the spread of the catalog with all kinds of incentives—“if you bring in your catalog, you get a free movie ticket,” in some towns. In other places, they organized public bonfires of the catalog. It’s seen as outside control, city interference with country life, Sears’s interference with the Jim Crow order. This is why there are rumors circulating that [Richard] Sears himself is black. Sears actually published pictures that he is white, and it’s used as a way to try to convince white customers to shop there.
So Sears was disrupting racial hierarchy, at least how it existed in rural areas, by selling directly to black Americans... but it also sounds like we can’t really call the retailer progressive. They were interested in profiting off of black consumption without making it totally transparent, without promoting the fact that they are allowing black Americans to buy from them.
They were are doing this really radical thing under a really conservative act—they’re just selling things and making money. I think that’s why my tweets resonated with people. It’s reassuring that you can just sell your stuff at reasonable prices and in this age of neoliberalism, markets might be a good thing. And I think if you’re included in markets, it often can be. That’s one of the large themes of African-American history. Black Americans have never really been in a market economy. They’ve always been segregated in terms of access. They paid more, they had more expensive and dangerous credit. This is the story of American capitalism.