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!
Try as I might, I couldn’t find a picture of Vito’s, the first grocery store I remember. So instead I am using a picture of me in the car getting ready to go shopping. (That blur is my brother, and I have tried to be consistent to not post pictures of living people to preserve their privacy as much as I can.)
In 1950 we moved into the first home that my parents owned, a Cape two bedroom with a big yard in a new neighborhood filled with other young families in their first homes. We did all our grocery shopping at Vito’s, a tiny by today’s standards market a couple of miles from our home. We had one car and my dad drove it to work, so my mom relied on him or a neighbor to go to the store. Vito’s had everything we needed, including a butcher and a meat locker where we stored the frozen meat from a hog given us by my father’s senior partner each year. Mostly we stored a bazillion packages of sausage!
His stepson opened a variety store complete with soda fountain in the adjoining building. That store, which filled a niche no neighborhood store seems able to fill today, carried everything else we needed. Shoelaces, pencils, writing tablets, games, toys, balloons, birthday presents and so on.
And for the rest we had hand me downs and the Sears Catalog,
In the United States right now the retail scene is in turmoil with malls closing and much shopping being done on-line. I thought I would spend a few posts reflecting on my experiences with retail over the last 68 years. I figure that in the first three years of my life I was pretty oblivious about where my food, clothing and other life necessities originated. I only started paying attention when I started nursery school at age 3. At that point Harlow Lennon made a nickel appear from behind my ear and asked how I would spend it. My life as a consumer had begun.
When we moved to Connecticut in 2001 we needed a new mattress. We had been inundated with newspaper and radio ads for a chain called “Sleepys.” “Trust Sleepys for the rest of your life.” Cleverly unforgettable, the slogan lured us to the nearest outlet, one of many. We picked out a set, had it delivered and went to sleep. But a few years ago, Mattress Firm bought out Sleepys, changing the signs on all the stores to Mattress Firm. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to tell them that while they may have meant the name to signal that they were a firm that sold mattresses, what stuck in one’s mind was the word “firm.” Firm does not sound nearly as inviting as sleepy. Their business tanked and they have entered bankruptcy.
But taking no responsibility for the name change, they blame on-line mattress sales for their financial woes. They add, in contrast to their first culprit, that “people aren’t going to buy a mattress any more; they want an experience.” Now it is hard to imagine what kind of G-rated experience they are suggesting would invite a buyer into their store. But it was the last comment that intrigued me, and I will spend the next few posts thinking about the experiences I have had in retail over the years. I hope that those readers my age will remember and that younger readers will be mystified about how much things have changed and how much has remained the same.
I have been researching my family history for the last twenty years. It is a hobby I inherited from my maternal grandfather who was fascinated with earlier generations. The interest skipped over to me, and I took up the hobby using his notes, a few recollections of my parents and much time in libraries. I made good use of the Mormons’ microfilms which had to be requested one at a time at the local Family History Center. (As a side note the Mormons do retroactive “sealing” of people into their faith. My grandfather would have been horrified to learn that he is now “sealed” with the Mormons.)
Eventually much information, a great deal of it wrong, became widely available on the internet. By then I had discovered that my paternal grandmother was Jewish. When I shared this knowledge with my father, he adamantly denied it. But it took a $69 DNA test from a company to confirm what my research had already determined. As seen above, I am 27% European Jewish, just as I had learned on my own. The other results verified the rest of my research which had my forebears nearly entirely from Great Britain and among the earliest settlers of New England.
No I didn’t learn that I was really adopted, nor do I have unknown half siblings out there. In fact the only close matches that the site recommended to me were cousins I had already identified, though never met. But it was a fun exercise, even if it simply confirmed that my years of more painstaking research were right.