The amazing Mr. Sears

The Old House Web

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Rosemary Thornton's second edition of  The Houses That Sears Built: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sears Catalog Homes. The country's leading authority on Sears catalog homes, Rose has collected many new stories and photos which she shares in this book. The Houses That Sears Built is available throughThe Old House Web Restoration Bookstore.

By Rosemary Thornton

Dont be afraid you will make a mistake (on your order). We receive hundreds of orders every day from young and old who never before sent away for goods. Tell us what you want in your own way, written in any language. We have translators to read all languages. -- 1908 Sears Roebuck catalog

Richard Warren Sears is one of my favorite characters in American history. He was a marketing genius, a fascinating entrepreneur and a true family man. Throughout his life, he maintained a deep and profound devotion to his family.

Sears father was a farmer and a blacksmith. When Sears was about 16 years old, his father died and Richard Warren Sears went to work to support the family.

In the mid-1880s, whilst working as a railway station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, Sears paid $50 for a shipment of watches that arrived at the train station and had been refused by a local merchant. Selling them to other railway agents and passengers, Sears turned $50 worth of watches into $5000 in a few months.

His timing could not possibly have been any better.

With the advent of the steam locomotive and reliable passenger rail service, people could now travel hundreds of miles each day, but there was a problem with all this expeditious movement. In the early 1880s, the United States had 300 different time zones.

Many rural communities relied on sun-time. If you wanted to know what time it was, you gazed upwards at the sky. Or, if you were traveling westward, you deducted one minute for every 12 miles. (Hope youre good at ciphering!) Travelers heading east made the opposite calculations.

In November 1883, railway companies established four time zones to help manage and standardize the complex train schedules. As folks adapted to the new time zones, watches became a hot commodity.

In 1886, 23-year-old Sears invested his $5000 cash profit into a new watch business and called it the R. W. Sears Watch Company. He advertised his watches in regional newspapers and in a short time, he moved the business from Minneapolis to Chicago.

Occasionally the watches came back needing repairs or adjustments, so in 1887, Sears decided to hire someone to help him in this new venture. A young watch repairman from Hammond, Indiana responded to Sears help wanted ad and was hired immediately. The watch repairmans name was Alvah Curtis Roebuck. Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck became good friends and eventually became partners in the business venture which they named, Sears Roebuck and Company.

Around 1891, Sears and Roebuck published their first mail order catalog, offering jewelry and watches within its 52 pages. By 1893, the little watch and jewelry catalog had grown to 196 pages and offered a variety of items, including sewing machines, shoes, saddles and more. One year later, another 300 pages were added, creating a 507-page mail order catalog.

The handsome Mr. Sears
Photo used with permission of Sears, Roebuck and Co. archives.

In 1895, Alvah Roebuck decided he wanted out. The 31-year old watch repairman felt that his physical health was collapsing under the strain of this new enterprise. The business was growing too fast and the enormous burden of debt combined with Sears wild ways of doing business were too much for mild-mannered, methodical Alvah. He asked Sears to buy his one-third interest in the company for $25,000.

Of course, Sears didnt have that kind of cash on hand, so he offered Chicago businessmen Aaron Nusbaum and Julius Rosenwald (Nusbaums brother-in-law) a one-half interest in the company. The price - $75,000, or $37,500 each. Six years later, in 1901, Rosenwald and Sears decided to buy out Nusbaum and offered him $1 million for his share of the business. Nusbaum refused and asked for $1.25 million, which he received. (Pretty tidy profit for six years!)

Following a nationwide depression in 1907, Rosenwald and Sears were at loggerheads on the best course of action to weather the economic storm. This disagreement seemed to highlight their radically different methods of doing business.

On November 1, 1908, 44-year-old Richard W. Sears emerged from a terse closed-door meeting with Rosenwald and announced that he would resign as President from his own company. Sears reason for retiring: He didnt see the work as fun anymore. A short time later, Sears sold his stock for $10 million dollars. There was another reason for his departure. Sears wanted more time to take care of his ailing wife, who had suffered from ill health for years.

In September 1914, at the age of 50, Sears died, having turned $50 worth of pocket watches into a multi-million dollar mail order empire. His estate was valued at more than $20 million.

Awesome trivia about Sears, Roebuck and Company

Knowing that many households would have both his catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog, Sears purposefully designed his catalog a little shorter and narrower than the Ward catalog. He knew that when the housewife was tidying up the home, the Sears catalog, being smaller, would be stacked on top of the Wards catalog. (Source: Mr. Sears Catalog, The American Experience, 1991 VHS.)

At its peak in 1915, the general merchandise catalog contained 100,000 items in 1200 pages and weighed four pounds. In 1896, annual sales were $1.2 million and by 1914 they hit $101 million. (The Good Old Days; A History of American Morals and Manners as Seen Through the Sears Roebuck Catalogs.)

Local merchants and owners of general stores were up in arms at the low prices Sears offered in his catalog and the bold promises that buyers could save money by eliminating the middle man. Of course, the middle man that Sears wanted to eliminate was the owner of the general store! In more than a few towns, children were promised a free movie ticket for every Sears catalog they brought into the local store. The catalogs were then piled high and ceremoniously burned in a massive bonfire.

During World War I, the Sears Roebuck catalog was the book most requested by American soldiers recovering in overseas hospitals. Julius Rosenwald sailed to France in the midst of the Great War (WWI) with four huge wooden crates, each filled with Sears catalogs, for distribution to the American boys lying in a hospital. (The Good Old Days; A History of American Morals and Manners as Seen Through the Sears Roebuck Catalogs.)

The book Sears Roebuck and Company: 100th Anniversary relates that a Sunday School pupil was asked Where did the Ten Commandments come from? and the child replied, From the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

According to Sears, Roebuck, USA: The Great American Catalog Store and How It Grew a Sears customer wrote and asked to return several bottles of patent medicine shed purchased from Sears, explaining that the medicine had originally been intended for her husband and hed since passed on. The clerk who received the inquiry responded by asking the woman if shed like to see a copy of Sears Tombstone Catalog.

The famous Chicago radio station, WLS, actually began as a promotional tool for Sears. In fact, WLS stands for Worlds Largest Store. The station signed on in 1924 with farm reports and weather information. Sears sold the radio station in the fall of 1928.

In the 1930s, Sears sold live baby chicks through their mail order catalogs. The chicks cost ten cents each and safe, live delivery was promised.

In November 1952, Sears announced it would sell the Allstate - a small car with a 100-inch wheelbase, capable of 35 mpg. The little car with a four or six cylinder engine cost $1395 - $1796. Two years later, Sears stopped selling the cars, having sold about 1500. The reason: Sears was ill-prepared to handle the problem of trade-ins.

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Text and photos are copyright 2004 by Rosemary Thornton and Gentle Beam Publications, PO Box 1392, Alton, IL 62002. They may not be reproduced or distributed without her express written consent.

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