In Every Way Shopping Reinforced Hierarchy. Until Sears.
October 17, 2018 1:13 AM   Subscribe

The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices! How the Sears Catalog Undermined White Supremacy in the Jim Crow South -- a catalogue of fascinating articles curated by [MetaFilter's Own™] Jason Kottke
posted by chavenet (25 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
And Julius Rosenwald(my mother's stepfather's uncle), who made Sears a success, was a great benefactor to the black citizens of the Jim crow south.
posted by brujita at 1:33 AM on October 17, 2018 [6 favorites]




Interesting article. By the way, how did the customers pay for their goods back then? Cash to the mail carrier? Check in the mail?
posted by Harald74 at 4:12 AM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


1897 Sears Roebuck Catalog (1968 commemorative publication, online viewer)

I inherited my immigrant grandparents' hardbound coffee-table edition. The original would've been from around the time they were born. The introduction to that edition points out that browsing the catalog is almost like "reading Proust" in its evocation of past times. I wonder what it meant to them...

Leafing through it really drives home the 'everything'-ness of Sears back then. The Amazon comparisons are apt.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:14 AM on October 17, 2018 [10 favorites]


Interesting article. By the way, how did the customers pay for their goods back then? Cash to the mail carrier? Check in the mail?

"How To Send Money" (in 1897)

I hadn't made the correspondence (heh) before, but has the Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer clip-art always been meant to evoke the Sears catalog?
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:23 AM on October 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


"How To Send Money" (in 1897)

Sugar, Nails and Barbed Wire are NET in all cases (no discount).
posted by saysthis at 5:09 AM on October 17, 2018


This is fascinating. Thank you for sharing.
posted by Fizz at 6:29 AM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


I heard about this on NPR the other day, and thought it was fascinating, and something I hadn't even considered.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:30 AM on October 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


"How To Send Money" (in 1897)

Sugar, Nails and Barbed Wire are NET in all cases (no discount).


For those that don't want to read, in 1897 you send a check or money order, which is the same way you paid for things from a catalogue in 1987. By 1997, credit cards were becoming the most common and money orders mostly for odd or governmental transactions. By 1987, CODs (cash on delivery- basically you paid the postman) were out of favor.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


"How To Send Money" (in 1897)

Flipping through the pages, I see that there's a lot of patent medicines ( bad ) and you can order laudanum ( good )
posted by mikelieman at 7:54 AM on October 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


You may know that people ordered complete house-building kits from Sears.

In 1911, Sears began to offer mortgages. The nature of the Sears relationship with customers was revolutionary and immigrants, single women, and African Americans received mortgages that they would have otherwise been unable to get.
posted by Glomar response at 7:56 AM on October 17, 2018 [12 favorites]


Interesting article. By the way, how did the customers pay for their goods back then? Cash to the mail carrier? Check in the mail?

This is actually what I want to read about, in a slightly less concrete sense. The storekeeper (and, in sharecropping situations, the landlord) had the power not just because of the physical monopoly but because he would extend credit, an absolute necessity for poor farmers and laborers who received the bulk of their income at the harvest. Did Sears extend credit (in which case, it was probably operating in a somewhat predatory fashion, as there was no "reasonable" credit back then)? If it didn't, how did it manage to build markets?
posted by praemunire at 8:28 AM on October 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


In 1911, Sears began to offer mortgages. The nature of the Sears relationship with customers was revolutionary and immigrants, single women, and African Americans received mortgages that they would have otherwise been unable to get.

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
posted by mikelieman at 8:36 AM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

Yup. And when the Depression hit Sears had to foreclose on millions of dollars of customer homes, putting a severe dent in the brand's goodwill. For some families that lasted for generations.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:41 AM on October 17, 2018 [4 favorites]


Remember that most mortgages at the time were short-term balloon mortgages that were, let us say, very risky loans to take out. The extension of credit is rarely an unalloyed blessing.
posted by praemunire at 8:50 AM on October 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


I think this might be the perfect place to quote in full one of my favorite comments of all time on the blue, from Pastabagel. This comment was from 2007 in the context of RIAA myopic business practices, but it goes to show that Sears has been kinda fucked and short sighted for a lot longer than the Randroid was in charge.

All this talk of their failing business model reminded me of something. It's not that the model is failing so much as a lack of vision to develop a new model.

Sears was started in the 1890's as a mail order business to compete against local general stores (think of all those westerns with "General Store" on one of the buildings - they were Sears competition). The guys Sears worked on railroads, and he saw all the middlemen tacking on markup as products moved west in the distribution chain until they go to the stores.

So he started a catalog, the famous Sears catalog in 1893. It was 300 pages, and had everything. Now think about this for a second. In 1893, you had a mail order catalog that sold pretty much everything that was for sale in 1893 - machinery, bikes, toys, dry goods, etc. Does this sound like another business you know?

So every year the catalog comes out, and after a few decades it becomes an American institution. For much of the population, the Sears catalog includes a decent quality, low cost version of every mass market nonperishable consumer product in the United States that wasn't a car (they did sell those at one point very early on. They also sold mobile homes too, up to the 1940's).

You could pick anything from the catalog, mail in your order with a check, and in a few days/weeks you'd get it. If you didn't like it, for any reason, Sears had a "satisfaction guaranteed" policy that you could return it at anytime for a full refund.

Now pay attention, because here's where it gets good.

In 1931, Sears starts an insurance company - Allstate. It buys financial investment firm Dean Witter and real estate broker Coldwell Banker in 1981. In 1984 it starts a joint venture with IBM called Prodigy, an online computer service, sort of a prototype AOL. In 1985, Sears launches a new major credit card, the Discover card. For the next eight years, the only credit card you can use at Sears is Discover.

At this time, the early 80's Sears is the largest retailer in the U.S.

By 1993, the 100th anniversary of the Sears Catalog, Sears had built up considerable goodwill in the mind of consumers. They weren't the lowest price, but they had what you needed at good prices and the service was second to none. They had real estate, insurance, financial planning, and all at good prices with top customer service.

This is 1993. In quite possibly the greatest example of corporate shortsightedness, Sears shut down it's mail-order business in a cost cutting measure. It spins off Allstate that same year, and soon dumps Dean Witter and Coldwell Banker.

In 1993, Sears had the most extensive and sophisticated mail-order retail operation on the planet and they closed it.

Two years later, Amazon.com launched, and was soon selling everything that sears sold through it's catalog. By the late-90's Walmart's push of low-cost China imports killed Sears retailing. Online banking takes off. Credit card use surges as mail order and retail purchases are shifted online.

Sears had its own computer network in 1993. They had access to IBM, they should have understood the power of the internet. All they had to do was shift the catalog online instead of killing it off, promising in store returns and the same Sears satisfaction guaranteed. Discover could have been the credit card of choice for security and protection online. Dean Witter could have been what Schwab, E-Trade and Ameritrade became. Back in the mid-late 90s when many people were hesitant to use credit cards online, Sears could have been a familiar face online.

Sears could have used the Catalog to create searscatalog.com or wishbook.com and owned online retailing, owned amazon's business, owned online brokerage and banking, but they blew their chances to save a few bucks in 1993. They could have made huge profits in the early 2000s real estate boom by leveraging that success with their real estate arm (imagine if Amazon sold houses).

By my estimates, Sears could have spent about $200 million in 1994-1996 to develop and promote retailing and financial services online, and they'd be reaping billions.

Sears could still be a huge American company today, instead of a historical footnote.

The lesson - arrogance and lack of vision. I look forward to the day in a few years when we can look back at the RIAA as a similar case study in lethargy, greed, and arrogance.

posted by absalom at 8:51 AM on October 17, 2018 [24 favorites]


Remember that most mortgages at the time were short-term balloon mortgages that were, let us say, very risky loans to take out.

Mortgages in the US in those days were just like mortgages in most other countries are today, like Canada. 5-7 years, with a balloon payment at the end, but most people didn't pay it off in 5-7 years, they just refinanced and got another mortgage. The 30 year mortgage common today saves us the trouble.
posted by The_Vegetables at 9:36 AM on October 17, 2018 [5 favorites]




The tweet author Louis Hyman teaches a course in the history of consumption at Cornell. If anyone has access to the syllabubs I would dearly love to see it.
posted by shothotbot at 10:10 AM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don’t think any of the links touched on this, but it’s also really important to note that a lot of the stuff the catalogs made available was tied in with people’s social standing. Having a complete set of dishes, for example, was important for the Middle Class family. The Sears catalog therefore allowed access to symbols of social standing that had previously been denied. They might not have been able to afford the finest porcelain (more likely some kind of whiteware), but it was a major change for this kind of thing to be available to them at all.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 11:16 AM on October 17, 2018 [3 favorites]


Mortgages in the US in those days were just like mortgages in most other countries are today, like Canada. 5-7 years, with a balloon payment at the end, but most people didn't pay it off in 5-7 years, they just refinanced and got another mortgage.

I'm trying to be a little less snarky on Metafilter, so I will confine myself to saying that the history of agricultural mortgages during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, as is even discussed in the very comments here, does not support your sanguine analysis of the risks inherent in this arrangement.
posted by praemunire at 12:05 PM on October 17, 2018 [1 favorite]


Louis Hyman course on the history of American capitalism

Overview & reading list
Another (in PDF)
posted by chavenet at 3:52 PM on October 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


Wow, I love perusing that 1897 catalog. I can definitely imagine repeatedly picking it up and opening at random; it would make a great coffee table book. Oh, wait...
posted by chortly at 8:27 PM on October 17, 2018


BI, From 2017: Inside Sears' Death Spiral

But Lampert, through ESL, has loaned Sears more than $1.12 billion and promised an additional $679 million over the past two years to help keep the company afloat. In return, Sears pays origination fees and interest directly to ESL, and, by extension, Lampert. A recent shareholder complaint claims that Lampert and ESL made at least $19 million in fees and interest payments from a $400 million loan in 2014.

Lampert and ESL could potentially seize stores and inventory if Sears can't pay its bills. That $400 million loan, for instance, is backed by collateral of 25 stores valued at $500 million total.


Who's this villanous Lampert? Why, the (former) CEO.

I feel like a lot of the current coverage is nostalgic to the point of obscuring the extent to which this was a self-interested bust-out, even if the company was already a zombie due to past mismanagement and missed .com-era opportunity.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:13 PM on October 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


Two good pieces from The American Prospect on Lampert's looting of Sears (via LGM):

Robert Kuttner: It Was Vulture Capitalism that Killed Sears
The Sears story shows how hedge fund operators can thrive even as the underlying company is pillaged. In a decade, 175,000 people at Sears/Kmart lost their jobs and revenue was cut in half. Various pieces of Sears were sold off. Lampert did just fine.

His net worth soared to over $8 billion after he did the Sears deal. In some years, he made over $1 billon just in income. After ballooning by several billion in the years when Sears stock was high-flying, Lampert’s reported net worth is back down to something like $2 billion—below its peak but still astronomical and all based on taking down one of America’s great companies.

Lampert’s hedge fund also became a prime a lender to Sears, making money off of commissions and interest charges as well as being a prime shareholder. Lampert’s core strategy was to enrich himself, even if he ran Sears into the ground. For the most part, the nostalgia coverage of the demise of Sears has missed this.
David Dayen: How Sears Was Gutted By Its Own CEO
But just how much did Lampert vacuum out? That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer, if only because of the variety of schemes he employed. Lampert was at one point simultaneously Sears’s CEO, board chairman, transaction partner, landlord, and banker. (Upon the bankruptcy filing, he stepped down as CEO.) Because of his outsized role as Sears’s number-one creditor, he stands to gain in a bankruptcy even if his shares of Sears stock get wiped out. Through this ploy, Lampert has been able to transfer to himself all the salvageable assets of the company. And so far, it’s worked out. [...]

So the leadership of the Sears empire—Lampert—is gradually selling off bits and pieces of it, mostly to Lampert. The cash generated from those deals in large part serviced Sears’s debt, the payments on which also went to Lampert. And now, having put Sears into bankruptcy, the top creditor—Lampert—stands to gain from the final fire sale. [...]

Yes, Lampert lost a lot of money on his Sears bet. His net worth has fallen, and confidence in his investment skills has waned. But much of that is due to his mismanagement of the company, in particular pitting parts of the business against one another (he installed three dozen different management teams and boards inside each department, specifically to foster competition between them, to disastrous consequences) and drastically reducing investment in the stores. In what we’re told is the iron logic of capitalism (and its moral justification), someone who destroys that much wealth and investment would personally suffer for those decisions.
I'd ask for Ron Howard to narrate a response to that last sentence, but his schedule's pretty full these days.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:58 AM on October 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


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