“Sears vs. Jim Crow”


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.

13 thoughts on ““Sears vs. Jim Crow”

  1. Interesting history. What I know of the demise of Sears was due to products are poor mostly from PRO. I don’t patronize China. Will check out the link and never heard of Crow.


  2. Those are very beneficial events that had never occurred tome, availability to the disadvantaged and the availability of muscial instruments. Thanks for mentioning it, and for mentioning that resource–I’ll go check it out.


  3. This is so interesting, Elizabeth….the history of smaller details rarely comes to mind when we think about large social issues like Jim Crow segregation….


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