Mother loved her job in the filing rooms of the Sears, Roebuck and Co. building in downtown, Atlanta. She could go on break, or after work, right downstairs to shop in the record department of the Sears store below. The building was opened in 1926 as a Sears, Roebuck and Co. retail store, warehouse, and regional office. In 1979, the retail store closed but the building continued operating as a Sears regional office until 1987. Mother worked there around 1945.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. was founded in 1892 by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck and reincorporated in 1906 by Richard Sears and Julius Rosenwald. At first, they were mail order only not opening their first retail store until 1925. Richard Warren Sears was born in 1863 in Stewartville, Minnesota. After his dad passed away he started working as a railroad station agent in North Redwood, then Minneapolis.
He started a watch-selling business that he called the R.W. Sears Watch Company in 1886 and met Alvah Curtis Roebuck, a watch repairman. They moved the company to Chicago and published their first mail-order catalog, offering watches, diamonds, and jewelry. In 1889 he sold the business and relocated to Iowa. Returning to Chicago in 1892, with now partner Roebuck they re-opened the watch mail order business.
In 1893, they renamed their business Sears, Roebuck, and Co. and began to diversify the product lines offered in their catalogs. Now the farmers could order the products they needed from a catalog, with the prices clearly marked. No more paying extra at the closest general store. By 1894, the Sears catalog had grown to 322 pages, including many new items, such as sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, and automobiles.
Sears sold some weird and questionable items over the years (horrifying by today’s standards). “Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers” were guaranteed to improve even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion. “Aconite” otherwise known as Wolfsbane, is a known poison, and neurotoxin.
“(Veterinary) Castrating Knives” enough said. “Opium”, Asthma was thought to be cured by inhaling the smoke or vapor of opium, and “Nitric Acid”, used as a cauterizing or diuretic agent is a highly poisonous substance. A heroin kit was available for around $1.50 and came with a syringe, two needles, and a carrying case. Children were given Cocaine Toothache Drops that sold for 15 cents a pack. Or there were always “Chickens” for 12 cents each!
My grandfather would always talk about being excited to get the new Sears catalog and being able to order tools, farm implements, clothing, etc. By 1896, dolls, stoves, and groceries were added to the catalog. The national Panic of 1893 led to a full-scale recession and in 1895, Roebuck bailed out and sold his half to Aaron Nusbaum, and his brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald. The first store opened on February 2, 1925, as an experiment in the North Lawndale Sears, Roebuck, and Company Complex, on Chicago’s West-side.
Despite its remote location on the outskirts of town, its success led to dozens of further openings across the country, many in conjunction with the company’s mail-order offices, typically in lower-middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, far from the main downtown shopping district. This allowed customers to shop in the store or simply place a catalog order that they could pick up at their closest store. My Dad loved The Craftsman tools that were sold at Sears. We got all our clothes there until probably the 1980s.
The Sears Wish Book was introduced in 1968. It was originally called the Sears Christmas Book which had been produced since 1933. It contained all the gift ideas for the upcoming Christmas season. This was the greatest thing to have as a kid. I would memorize each book, picking out all the toys that I wanted. I would usually receive a few things, I was pretty lucky. It would arrive in late August or early September and became a holiday tradition.
They had sections for grown-ups, teenagers, and little children, with prices from a $4500.00 mink coat, $2.99 dress shirts, a $1295.00 player piano, to a $12.77 road race set. Sears had the Winnie the Pooh franchise, filling the toy section with Pooh choices in 1973. You could buy Hot Wheels, Matchbox, turntables, radios, musical instruments, chemical sets, wood-burning kits, action figures, dolls, board games, baby toys, train sets, cowboys hats, cap pistols, football helmets, baseballs, basketballs, etc.
They produced catalogs, “The Big Book”, for “Spring-Summer” and for “Fall-Winter” that were over 1000 pages. There were also specialty catalogs for tools for Craftsman Tools, Clearance Items, Gardening Equipment and Supplies, Tractors and Farming Equipment, etc.
In 1974, Sears completed the 110-story Sears Tower in Chicago, which became the world’s tallest building. They sold the building in 1988. The company discontinued the catalog in 1993. It dismissed 50,000 workers who had filled the orders. Sears Holdings filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on October 15, 2018, ahead of a $134 million debt payment due that day. On November 23, 2018, Sears Holdings released a list of 505 stores, including 266 Sears stores, that were for sale in the bankruptcy process, while all others would hold liquidation sales.
I have a lot of fond memories of Sears. From clothing to toys, power tools, and hand tools. video games, stereo equipment, televisions, Frigidaire washing machines, freezers, to Craftsman lawn mowers.
We even had Sears’ maintenance contracts on everything we had bought there. It is fun looking through some of the old catalogs that I still have. It was an incredible business that I will always love. Some independent Sears stores still survive.
- Frigidaire was founded as the Guardian Refrigerator Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and developed the first self-contained refrigerator, invented by Nathaniel B. Wales and Alfred Mellowes in 1916. In 1918, William C. Durant, a founder of General Motors, personally invested in the company, and in 1919, it adopted the name Frigidaire.