One of my favorite web sites which delivers an email to me most days is open culture I recommend it to everyone since at one time or another you are bound to learn something new. It amasses free resources from all over the world, including free courses, out of print books, audio and video recordings and generally overlooked arcana.
The demise of Sears has been much in the news for the last few days, and today open culture referred me to Professor Louis Hyman of Cornell University, a labor historian who teaches a course about shopping. (No, I never heard of him before. Obviously great minds run in the same channel. LOL!)
For the full story about Sears and the systematic racial segregation known as Jim Crow that existed in the Southern United States after the end of the Civil War, I refer you to the actual article. But essentially he points out that, with the advent of the Sears catalog, for the first time rural Americans were given access to goods formerly only available in large cities. While this was helpful for rural whites, it was groundbreaking for rural blacks. Local stores often refused to sell to them, or sold them shoddy goods, or charged them extra. And some things, such as guitars, were unavailable to them altogether.
Sears recognized that even with the availability of catalogs to this population, major barriers were still in place. Catalogs were destroyed before being delivered or postmasters, often part of the general store, refused to sell postage for the order form. Sears instructed users to work directly with the mail carrier, paying him with cash and asking his help, when necessary, to fill out forms.
Most wonderfully of all, for those of us who love the Mississippi Delta blues, they arose because sharecroppers, by saving up a little money, could order their own guitars. Order they did, and we can thank the Sears catalog for making possible the rich music that we treasure today.
I got a big laugh when I read the lead editorial of the New York Times today. They must have been reading my blog post from October 13–Sears came first! The picture above (from a stereoptican viewer which allowed two photos to seem three dimensional)shows workers filling orders in much the same way that Amazon fills orders today.
The editorial also touched on an aspect of Sears’ failure that I am too uninformed to write much about. I only know that many companies were bought up by others and ended up with crippling debt. Sears also had enormous debt. Ironically, in the end, it was the real estate under the stores that held the most value. As they sold off stores they were really selling the land. Near us the Sears was torn down and replaced by REI, a giant sporting goods store with excellent customer service. The lot also now houses a Shake Shack. Apparently Americans’ love of fast food continues apace. But by the time that Sears closed it resembled something, as one reporter put it, reminiscent of a Soviet state store–bleak and understocked.
Every medium or large city had a central downtown department store. In Portland, it was Meier and Frank. In the photo montage above you can see from left to right the store, the Georgian Tea Room, the clock and the warehouse. In Chicago my grandmother swore by Marshall Fields. In Seattle friends praised Frederick and Nelson. When I was in Boston I went to Jordan’s for my winter coat.
Department stores had a heyday throughout the first 2/3 of the 20th century before they were replaced by shopping malls. They were where I went once I was old enough(12) to take the bus downtown and shop by myself. Meier and Frank had everything I needed, including a fabric department, a stamp and coin department, and a clothing department. Sears had been all right when I was little, but I needed to see and try things on now. I was very small throughout elementary school and bought everything in the childrens’ department.
Everyone knew a great place to meet was under the clock on the first floor of the store. There were three places to eat lunch, including a men’s only room, the Georgian Tea Room and a cafeteria with counters in a snakelike pattern to seat more customers. I stuck to the cafeteria, though I did eat with my grandmother in the Tea Room. The stores downtown knew that no one wanted to carry packages around when they were eating lunch. All the major department stores would gladly deliver any purchase you made for no fee.
Credit cards had just become available and my parents had one for Meier and Frank. While I generally bought things with my own baby sitting earnings, I could also charge things on their account. All I needed was a note from my mother. If there was any question the clerk simply called home.
Were those better times? I doubt it, but I still prefer stores with windows and doors to the outside rather than the artificial landscape of the mall. Apparently I am not alone. The “newest” trend here is “lifestyle retail.” More on in a later post.
I actually had lost my two front teeth just before Christmas when I was six. This allowed me to happily sing the tune “all I want for Chrithmath is my two front teeth.” But other years the next best thing was the Sears Christmas catalog. It arrived in November and my brother and later my sister and I fought over getting to read it. It kept us endlessly entertained, though it had little effect on what we actually received for Christmas. In general we would get a couple of books, some new pajamas, some candy and a couple of toys. Certainly not as many as we had discovered we wanted from being exposed to the bounty of the Sears catalog.
The catalog was absolutely gender specific, with a section for girls and a section for boys. Sears made it abundantly clear that girls play with dolls, play house, draw and paint. Boys were to dress like cowboys, shoot guns and play outside. No discussion ensued about the distinctions. If you wonder about the vehement insistence when my boomer generation became parents on “gender neutral” toys, it began here. Every boy who wanted a doll and couldn’t have one and every girl who wanted a bb gun and was denied made a movement characterized by Marlo Thomas singing “free to be me.” Among many children my daughter’s age, however, most kept happily going for the toys Sears had suggested for them when I was a kid, with boys using sticks for guns and girls making dolls out of odds and ends. But at least we had told them they had a choice!
Long before Jeff Bezos had dreamed up Amazon, Americans had at their fingertips access to thousands of items any household might need. In two yearly full catalogs and one special Christmas one(tomorrow’s post)we were offered page after page of clothing, household goods, tools, appliances, gifts and furniture. There was little we needed that couldn’t be purchased from Sears.
You filled out an order form with the items you wanted, totaled their cost, enclosed a check for the proper amount and mailed it off. There were no credit cards in those days. If you didn’t have a checking account, you would request the the goods be shipped to you C.O.D. or cash on delivery. This meant exactly what it said. You paid the delivery man the amount you owed Sears when the package was delivered. If you wondered why so many delivery trucks say “We carry no cash” in bold letters on their sides, I suspect it is because so many people think C.O.D. still exists.
Sears is on the verge of bankruptcy or has already begun the process. They blame it all of on-line shopping. A little ironic since they built their business through the mail without depending on “brick and mortar” stores.
While it is true that there was no drugstore on line since there was no on line, that doesn’t mean we didn’t have direct delivery. As I mentioned, our family had one car used by my dad for work. If we needed medicine or other drug items when Dad was at work, Wally of Watson’s Valley Pharmacy brought them to the house. While the photo above is not of his drug store, it is very similar.
There were not many drugs available at the time to treat kids’ infections. Penicillin was delivered by a massive shot in the rear end. One shot and that was it. I wonder sometimes how much antibiotics we were exposed to that way. My brother, however, developed a penicillin allergy(probably related to the question I just asked) and he was treated with sulfa drugs. These came in a little paper box such as shown below.and were delivered by the pharmacist.
One terrible day my brother started eating these from the box and had to be forced to vomit them all back up. There were no childproof little pill boxes.
While I am saving my retail conclusions until the end of the series, I hope by now that many things said to be ruining retail were done in earlier times. It is just that they were phone to and delivery by the vendor in person rather than on-line and delivery by UPS.
Milk was delivered to our back door and left in a little wooden box. My mother would write an order for how many quarts of milk, cartons of cottage cheese or sour cream that she needed and the Alpenrose Dairy man would leave it early in the day. Because she was home there was no worry about the milk getting warm before it was once again refrigerated. She could adjust the order as often as she needed, taking into account extra guests, an upcoming dinner party or a vacation. We never ran out of milk. That was a good thing since it was before the advent of stores open on Sunday or late in the evening.
The Alpenrose Dairy was local, just a few miles from our home. They encouraged field trips for school children and I was able to see the cows, the milking machines, the pastures and drink a glass of cold milk before boarding the bus back to school.
Alpenrose Dairy didn’t need to promote themselves as local and friendly since everyone already knew they were both. After all, a little white truck with a jovial milkman came to our house regularly. So regularly, of course, that in our day a child who didn’t resemble either parent was jokingly linked to the milkman!