Sears: The Amazon of the Gilded Age

I was saddened this week to hear the Sears has filed Chapter 11. The company has appeared in so many of my books, it feels like I’m losing one of my characters. 

Among my favorite resources is a Sears Catalogue dated 1894. I use it to research fashion, furnishings, vehicles and just about everything else a household would have needed back in those early days.  Prices are clearly marked, along with full descriptions—a writer’s dream.

The company was originally started in 1886 by Richard W. Sears in Minnesota to sell watches.  The idea came to him while working as a railroad agent.  A jeweler received a large shipment of watches, which were unwanted.  Sears purchased them and sold them to the railroad agents, making a handsome profit. 

A year later, he moved to Chicago and hired Alvah C. Roebuck to repair watches. Together they established a mail order watch catalogue, which proved to be a great success. 

However, Sears was a restless type and always looking to improve. He didn’t have to look far.  At the time, farmers living in rural areas had to purchase products from the local general store on credit and at high prices. Shopkeepers would decide how much to charge by estimating a customer’s credit-worthiness. Choice of products was also extremely limited.

Sears decided to take advantage of this by offering a catalogue under the name Sears, Roebuck & Company.  His timing was perfect: The government’s Rural Free Delivery Act opened delivery routes in rural areas, allowing for better distribution of the catalogue.

The catalogue featured a wide selection of products at clearly marked prices. Consumers were delighted to find prices consistent and not have to haggle.  They were also drawn to the easy-to-read, warm, friendly language used to describe goods, and the catalogue proved an instant success.

Houses were delivered by rail.

By 1895, the catalogue had grown to 532 pages and featured such items as sewing machines, sporting equipment, household furnishings, tombstones and barber chairs.  It was even possible to purchase an entire house from Sears, delivered by train.   In 1905, automobiles were added to the catalogue. It even sold a “Stradivarius model violin” for $6.10

Sears began opening retail stores in 1925 and, for years, was the largest retailer in the United States.   

Many reasons have been cited for the company’s demise.  Critics claim Sears made many mistakes and couldn’t keep up with the likes of Walmart and Amazon.

This might be true, but Sears taught America how to shop and for that reason, its legacy will no doubt remain intact.   

“This book charms.”-Publishers Weekly






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25 thoughts on “Sears: The Amazon of the Gilded Age”

  1. Sears has a store in my town, Stephenville, Texas. Will see how long it stays open now. Fun to learn you get information from such an old catalog. Once catalogs were free, then there was a charge to get them. This was the beginning of the end in my opinion. Online took over for sales and competition is harsh.

    • Hi Jerri, the problem with online browsing is that others are watching and we end up getting ads we don’t want. I could browse the Sears catalog in complete privacy. Competition is harsh and annoying.

  2. It’s sad to read about Sears fi!ing bankrupcy. So many brick & mortar stores have closed but Sears was part of my childhood because anytime we saved up money or during the holidays it was Sears we shopped at. Thanks for your post.

  3. I was sad about Sears as well. Military families loved Sears as there was always one nearby when we moved.

  4. Your last statement is so true. Sears did teach America to shop. One of my feedyards I inspect has a Sear home in it that they have recently renovated. It’s beautiful and amazing it’s still in such a beautiful condition and still is being used.

  5. I love this, Margaret. I just spent hours reading about the origins of Marshall Fields. Those early department stores were groundbreaking because back then if you wanted to BUY a dress(rather than make it yourself), you went to a dress shop, got measured, picked fabric. If you wanted a hat you went to a milliners, gloves…the same. Every product had it’s own store.
    So a store selling different things in set sizes, let alone shipping it was huge.
    Oh, and in my research I found out a bunch about Singer Sewing Machines, too.

    I love historical research. But if I’m not careful I can really lose hours of time digging into it, following rabbit trails.
    Great post.

  6. This post was so interesting! I am still confused about locally owned Sears that will not be closing. How can they carry the Sears name yet not be part of it really? I know we have one about 40 miles away that is locally owned so is staying, but I don’t understand the logistics of that yet as it is still called Sears. I love reading stories that include buying from Sears! I do hope their legacy stays.

  7. Great post Margaret. One of my favorite childhood memories was my and my siblings excitement when the Sears Christmas wishbook arrived. We would pour over that thing for hours deciding on just what we wanted to ask Santa for.

  8. When I was growing up, Sears and Montgomery Ward were the two stores in our area that also sent us “wish books”. Beginning in early October my brother and I took turns looking and marking those beloved pages! So sorry that another landmark of our history is facing demise. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I have a couple of those reproduction Sears catalogs. And who can forget the Christmas Wishbook? I always had to turn to the Barbies first, even when I was too old to play with them.

  10. Hi Margaret. Great blog. Thanks for giving us the history, since Sears is so much in the news now days. Like you, I use the old Sears Catalog for my western historical romance. I use it for everything from fashion, to food and the costs of everyday items. Thanks again, sister Filly, for a wonderfully informative blog.

  11. great blog! And you have an 1894 catalog?? That’s so great! We live in a very populous area of the Northeast and both of our Sears stores have closed, as well as their two K-Mart stores.

    We went from frontier stores to sears catalogs to ‘modern’ stores back to amazon and walmart online. I wonder if the tide will turn again and people want to get out to stores again. I have a feeling today’s corporate rat race and ridiculous amounts of traffic contribute to folks wanting things delivered. It’s so much easier and time saving. But it’s hard to believe that change won’t happen yet once again.

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