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Ode to Sears and Roebuck

GAYS MILLS - You’ve no doubt heard by now that Sears, Roebuck and Company recently declared bankruptcy. Commonly referred to as just “Sears,” the pioneering retail giant was a part of nearly everyone’s life for a long, long time. The company has been in business for 132 years and may continue on in some form after reorganization. 

Sears started out as a mail order company in 1892. It expanded, beginning in 1925, into the brick and mortar world with large department stores located all over the map.  The population was increasingly becoming more urban and less rural and actual stores became a better way to serve customers. It was the largest domestic retail business in America for decades until 1989 when Wal-Mart surpassed it.

Retail businesses have always been competitive and now Wal-Mart is feeling the pressure of the behemoth Amazon and other on-line ways to shop. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos once said he wanted to be the new Sears and, ironically, Sears has been called the Amazon of its time.  By utilizing railroads and the US Postal Service, the Sears founders found a way to reach virtually every person in the country. This was especially true after RFD (rural free delivery) went into effect in 1896.

One iconic key to Sears’ success was its catalog.  The massive catalog was known as the Wish Book, the Big Book or the Dream Book. And, it was big. Some of the catalogs in the heydays of Sears were 1,500 pages long. The pages were thin, of course, but very detailed and included everything from sewing needles to washing machines, clothing and toys, guns, musical instruments, farm equipment and entire houses that could be delivered as a build-it-yourself kit.  

There was a very unique use for the old catalog, once the new one arrived in the mailbox. It made its way to the little house out back with its crescent moon cutout in the door, down-wind of the house. Don’t understand the reference? Ask any old-timer.

As the grandson of a rural mail carrier, I can’t help but think of what it was like when those catalogs came out and needed to be delivered. Whew! Sears stopped printing a catalog in 1993 and relied more on their stores for sales. Of course what is the internet, but a catalog of sorts and that’s what more and more people came to use.

At one time, I owned a reproduction of a 1909 Sears Catalog. It was so much fun to page through that booster seat of a book to marvel at its offerings and the ridiculously low, it seems now, prices. I gave that catalog to a history teacher colleague to use as a teaching aid, an interesting look back at an earlier, much simpler time.

A few years ago, I happened onto a 1947 Sears catalog at the Apple Festival Flea Market. It was in great shape and had no doubt spent decades stashed away in someone’s attic.  For $5, I got my 1947 vintage brother Bill the perfect birthday present, a time capsule of the year he was born.