Before there were strip malls and shopping centers, Walmart, or Target, and certainly before there was any Amazon.com, there was Sears.
Established in the late 1880s, by Richard W. Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck as a mail order catalog company selling watches and jewelry, A.C. Roebuck Watch Company would become Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1893 and expand its product offerings to compete with general stores selling select high-priced supplies and goods to rural farmers on credit. General store owners often negotiated prices with the farmers based on creditworthiness. The Sears catalog offered fixed pricing on a much larger selection of goods. That formula worked, and business boomed. In 1893, sales were more than $400,000 (about $12 million today), and by 1895 they topped $750,000 ($20 million today). The catalog grew, eventually surpassing 1,000 pages and included a vast array of items, such as sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, groceries, and even automobiles.
In 1906, Sears and his then-partner and brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald decided to take the company public. The successful initial public offering (IPO) was the first major retail IPO in American financial history.
That same year, Sears opened a new catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in Chicago. The building was the anchor of what would become the massive 40-acre Sears, Roebuck and Company Complex of offices, laboratories, and mail-order operations at Homan Avenue and Arthington Street. The complex was the base of the mail-order catalog business until 1993 and served as corporate headquarters until 1973 when the Sears Tower was completed.
The company opened its first retail store within the Chicago complex in 1925 and many more followed. Similar to its catalog, Sears stores followed an unconventional business model, located in middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, far from the main downtown shopping district. They offered easy parking in lots, and large, modern, spacious, boxy buildings, with myriad products aimed at men and women, including hardware and building materials, kitchen and home goods, and family-oriented items. Instead of high-end fashion clothing, Sears carried practical, everyday clothing, on racks and shelves, allowing its customers to select goods without the aid of a clerk.
During the 1980s, Sears was the largest retailer in the United States, and many of its stores became anchors for malls across America. Ironically, its innovative 19th-century and early-20th century business model may ultimately have been its demise, as the late 20th and early 21st century brought new versions of the box store. Walmart, K-Mart, Target, and other large retail stores popped up in every conceivable neighborhood of Middle America, offering goods at bargain prices.
Sears discontinued its famed catalog in 1993 and laid off the massive 50,000-plus workforce that created it and filled its orders. In the 21st century, the ease and convenience of online shopping continue to deliver a devastating blow to brick-and-mortar shops and malls.
On December 13, 2022, Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and began shuttering the remainder of its once-vast network of more than 3,500 stores. As of May 2023, only 11 Sears stores remained open.
In its heyday, its operations were massive and multifaceted. After its 1906 Chicago complex opened, Sears commemorated the occasion with a card set of 50 stereographic views of its inner workings. A detailed description of each scene is printed on the card’s backside. A sampling of the set is shared here—a fascinating glimpse into the birth of a new American consumerism.
Melissa A. Winn is a writer, editor, photographer, and collector of historic photographs. She’s a member of the Professional Photographers Association, Authors Guild, and the Center for Civil War Photography.
This story appeared in the 2024 Winter issue of American History magazine.
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