Most people may not know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of Jim Crow. You see, during Jim Crow, every time a black southerner, Midwesterner or westerner and even many parts of the north went to the local store to shop they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first. Never mind, they often paid a higher price than the white customer.
And these stores were often filled with racist caricatures of black people in an effort to sell to white people. The images marketers felt most whites were comfort with.
The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods. You couldn’t select or touch anything in many stores. If you did touch something. It meant you bought it. Because according to Jim Crow, it then couldn’t be sold to a white person. Often products were sold on credit because the black customer was sharecropping. Often times the landlord often owned the store or had a share in and drove up the prices to make sure the workers never paid the debt off. In every way shopping reinforced a racial hierarchy. Until Sears and Roebuck mail order cataloges undid the power of the storekeepers, and by extension the landlord and land owners. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being stigmatized for touching something. Without being watched. And best of all at cheaper national prices! The local stores often didn’t sell black and white customers the same item at the same price and some industries still practice this deception.
But storekeepers didn’t take this lying down. They fought back. Mainly the Southern ones. They even organized catalogue bonfires in the street saying the company was evil.
Remember back then, these general stores often doubled as post offices. The owners would refuse to sell postage stamps to or money orders to black people to use the catalogue services.
It happened so often that Sears got wind of it and instructed their customers on how to evade the general store postmaster and directly speak to the mail carrier: “Just give the letter and the money to the mail carrier and he will get the money order at the post office and mail it in the letter for you.” Sears was paying the postage for it customers.
In an attempt to undermine the mail order company, rumors spread that Sears was black (to get white customers to stop buying from the company. ). Sold by mail “these fellows could not afford to show their faces as retailers” Sears, in turn, published photos to “prove” he was white. The Roebuck was asked to show his face. Then they said he was black. The story is still around until this day.
These rumors didn’t affect sales but however it did show how race and commerce are connected in the country and unfortunately still is. And how dangerous it was to the locals, and to white supremacy, to have national markets.
So as we think about Sears and it’s closing, little do we realize we’re losing a bit of history which made America what is is today. How this company was actually before it’s time. It changed how Americans shop. It sold every thing from prefabricated houses to cars. One could know how retail is not just about just buying things, but it’s a part of a larger system of power. Every act of power contains the opportunity, and the means, for resistance.
It isn’t old as Macy and Tiffany but it was the first company in American history known for deliberating resisting white supremacy and having sense enough to know that in business you don’t see but one color and that the color of the currency. It was also one of the first to set aside grants to aid African American students to attend one of the historical black colleges founded after the Civil War.
This may seems like a small issue to someone living and shopping today but in truth it wasn’t. It helped black writers get their books to their intended audience because before then there was no outlet other than word of most. There was no way many local stores w going were to carry a book written by a black person if they knew the author was black.