It wasn't exactly a surprise when Sears filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago, considering all the reports of the retail chain's slow collapse from decades of missed opportunities. But its recent history belies its revolutionary beginning as a retail innovator that changed the shopping game, especially for black Americans.
In the Jim Crow South, white store owners held a tremendous amount of power. Self-service shopping wasn’t invented until 1916, so the shopkeeper controlled what you could buy and the price you’d pay. For black Americans, this meant that after waiting for all the white customers to be served before them, they would be charged higher prices for inferior goods.
Then came the Sears catalog, the Amazon.com of its time, which the company began distributing by mail in 1894. Offering everything from clothing to guns at cheap prices, the jam-packed catalog gave black people access to the same products as white people, freeing them from the scrutiny and indignities of local white store owners. Plus, Sears offered credit, a game-changer for black farmers who didn’t get paid until the end of the growing season.
Sears famously accepted letters from anyone, in any language; if you wrote to them, they’d make sure you got your product.
“The goal of Sears was to sell to rural America and the goal of Sears was to make money,” historian Louis Hyman told VICE News. “This certainly wasn't a social enterprise committed to destroying Jim Crow.”
But in its capitalist pursuit, Sears forever changed the retail experience for black Americans. “Historically, the lack of access to the same kinds of retail opportunities as white people has been a tremendous hindrance to African-Americans, whether it's in the Jim Crow South or whether it's today as many urban African-Americans live in healthcare and grocery deserts,” Hyman said. “So what's interesting about the history of the catalog, which was basically the Amazon of its time, is to think about how we can use businesses to subvert other kinds of inequalities.”
Illustrations by Pamela Guest