A sense of nostalgia hit older shoppers early last month upon learning that the Sears store in the Lima Mall will close in September.
Having often shopped there, I went to the store for a last look. Sure enough, liquidation sales were underway. Signs at the checkout stations read: “All Sales Final. No Returns.” Appliances were being offered for “up to 40 percent off,” with prices for many clothing items reduced by 50 percent. Little wonder that there were more shoppers than I had seen in several years.
The Lima closing is part of a nation-wide shuttering of 78 non-profitable stores. Most notable is the closing on July 15 of the last Sears in Chicago, home of the formerly named Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the world. Another 200 closings are scheduled for later this year, meaning that the 1600 Sears and Kmart (both owned by Sears Holding) stores operating two years ago will decline to approximately 1000.
The decline of the venerable retail store is due to several reasons, most prominently the emergence of discounters like Walmart, Target and, later, Amazon online shopping. Consequently the iconic retailer has lost approximately $12 billion in the last several years. Have you noticed the U.S. mail carriers who deliver by car, their trunks filled with boxes and packages? They represent fewer store visits.
Through the years my wife and I have had good reason to be pleased with the quality of Sears’ various brands. A 3/8 inch electric drill (reversible-variable speed) purchased four decades ago at a Toledo Sears store and a 3/8 inch cordless drill drive with battery pack purchased a quarter century ago continue to work as new.
Upon moving to Bluffton, we bought a Kenmore washer and dryer at the Lima store. The washer lasted for nearly 18 years before we replaced it two months ago. After 16 years, my Feather Lite Weed Eater, also purchased at the Lima store, continues to perform well without undergoing repairs.
Several decades before Sears opened its first retail outlet in 1925, two-thirds of Americans lived in rural areas. Less than 5 percent had electricity (nearly all in the city) in the 1890s, and only a third of houses had running water (again, mostly in the city). Less than 1 percent of families had telephones, and there were no cars on the road. Few children attended high school, while most worked in fields or factories.
Richard Warren Sears made these realities work for him. With experience as a railroad station agent during the 1880s, Sears learned salesmanship by shipping coal and lumber to farmers. Gold-filled watches soon followed. After partnering with Alvah C. Roebuck, a Midwestern watchmaker, they created a mail-order catalog that substituted for the newspaper advertising employed by city merchants. The Sears Roebuck mail order catalog (the “Big Book”) first appeared in 1893 and lasted exactly a century before closing.
The Sears catalog – the “Farmer’s Bible” of emerging consumption communities – often appeared twice per year. In hundreds of pages, featuring thousands of items, they offered everything people wished for, from bedsteads to violins, buggies, bicycles, sewing machines and sporting goods, socks and underwear, women’s garments, Kenmore appliances, wagons, furniture and firearms.
The power of the 1902 dollar is remarkable. From that year’s catalog, consumers could order a pair of shoes listed for a dollar or two, women’s “stylish trimmed hats” priced from 99 cents to a dashing hat with a flare on one side for $4.50, or a man’s fine wool fedora for 45 cents. For men and women wishing “to enjoy married life in its fullest sense,” Sears recommended Dr. Hood’s “Plain Talks and Common Sense Medical Adviser” for $1.95.
A tall Queen Parlor Organ could be had for $27.45, cornets ranged from less than $10 to $44.55. Thirty pages are given to guns, ranging from Remington Double Barrel Shotguns ($20) to automatic revolvers priced at $2.95 and Colt’s pocket revolver at $11. Catalog shoppers could order a lawn mower priced at $2.25. A one-furrow walking plow ranged from $8 to $12, two-horse corn planters from $21.60 to $40.90, depending on number of attachments. A Kenwood hay loader, hitched behind a wagon pulled by horses – such as I walked behind as a young boy – listed for $31.20.
And there were houses, too. During the first four decades of the 20th century, approximately 75,000 Americans bought precut homes through the catalog, its lumber and wallboard, nails and screws shipped by railroad – all 30,000 or more precut pieces. Prices started at $600 and, with the addition of larger, more complex designs through the years, could rise to $6,000.
Friends of mine, Robert and Linda Suter, live in a Sears house on Grove Street in Bluffton. Built in 1920, its materials are listed at $785 in the 1915 catalog. When labor, brick, cement and plaster were factored in, Sears estimated the total cost of the completed bungalow style house (with a half-basement) to be approximately $1,750. The Suters have enlarged the original plan of approximately 1,000 square feet and modified the interior into the attractive house we see today.
All told, for the better part of a century Sears helped democratize retail in America. Taking advantage of rural free delivery to farm families and a steadily growing railroad network, Sears brought millions into new consumption communities.
It stimulated the spread of ready-made garments that dressed people in similar-looking clothes, contributing to the blurring of traditional ways of distinguishing social classes. These similar looking clothes enabled immigrants to mix more easily with Americans, thus playing a role in democratizing not only retail, but America itself.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.