The 20th-Century Retail Mecca That Was Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Before there were strip malls and shopping centers, Walmart, or Target, and certainly before there was any Amazon.com, there was Sears.
Established in the late 1880s, by Richard W. Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck as a mail order catalog company selling watches and jewelry, A.C. Roebuck Watch Company would become Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1893 and expand its product offerings to compete with general stores selling select high-priced supplies and goods to rural farmers on credit. General store owners often negotiated prices with the farmers based on creditworthiness. The Sears catalog offered fixed pricing on a much larger selection of goods. That formula worked, and business boomed. In 1893, sales were more than $400,000 (about $12 million today), and by 1895 they topped $750,000 ($20 million today). The catalog grew, eventually surpassing 1,000 pages and included a vast array of items, such as sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, groceries, and even automobiles.
In 1906, Sears and his then-partner and brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald decided to take the company public. The successful initial public offering (IPO) was the first major retail IPO in American financial history.
That same year, Sears opened a new catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in Chicago. The building was the anchor of what would become the massive 40-acre Sears, Roebuck and Company Complex of offices, laboratories, and mail-order operations at Homan Avenue and Arthington Street. The complex was the base of the mail-order catalog business until 1993 and served as corporate headquarters until 1973 when the Sears Tower was completed.
this article first appeared in American history magazine
The company opened its first retail store within the Chicago complex in 1925 and many more followed. Similar to its catalog, Sears stores followed an unconventional business model, located in middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, far from the main downtown shopping district. They offered easy parking in lots, and large, modern, spacious, boxy buildings, with myriad products aimed at men and women, including hardware and building materials, kitchen and home goods, and family-oriented items. Instead of high-end fashion clothing, Sears carried practical, everyday clothing, on racks and shelves, allowing its customers to select goods without the aid of a clerk.
During the 1980s, Sears was the largest retailer in the United States, and many of its stores became anchors for malls across America. Ironically, its innovative 19th-century and early-20th century business model may ultimately have been its demise, as the late 20th and early 21st century brought new versions of the box store. Walmart, K-Mart, Target, and other large retail stores popped up in every conceivable neighborhood of Middle America, offering goods at bargain prices.
Sears discontinued its famed catalog in 1993 and laid off the massive 50,000-plus workforce that created it and filled its orders. In the 21st century, the ease and convenience of online shopping continue to deliver a devastating blow to brick-and-mortar shops and malls.
On December 13, 2022, Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and began shuttering the remainder of its once-vast network of more than 3,500 stores. As of May 2023, only 11 Sears stores remained open.
In its heyday, its operations were massive and multifaceted. After its 1906 Chicago complex opened, Sears commemorated the occasion with a card set of 50 stereographic views of its inner workings. A detailed description of each scene is printed on the card’s backside. A sampling of the set is shared here—a fascinating glimpse into the birth of a new American consumerism.
Melissa A. Winn is a writer, editor, photographer, and collector of historic photographs. She’s a member of the Professional Photographers Association, Authors Guild, and the Center for Civil War Photography.
This story appeared in the 2024 Winter issue of American History magazine.
Caption on back of card showing R.W. Sears at desk. The ‘Works'. In order to accommodate its need to ship and receive a vast amount of merchandise, the Sears complex was built on the Chicago Terminal Transfer Railway to capitalize on its access to every railway line passing through Chicago. The Merchandise Building, pictured here, was nicknamed the “works” for the large army of employees “busy from early morning until late at night in filling the orders from our customers.” General View. This picture gives a general view of the great mercantile institution of Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, Ill., as approached on Harvard Street from the East. The first building to the left is the great Printing Building, with its numerous perfecting presses, great bindery, and the Advertising and Mailing Departments, where we handle every day more printing and more mailing than any other concern in the world. The second building is the Administration Building, where the clerical force performs its daily labor, handling the correspondence and orders received from our customers. The big building in the distance is the Merchandise Building and in this structure will be found almost every conceivable merchandise item and a stock valued in excess of $8,000,000.00. The distances in this picture are so great that the lens of the camera gets but a portion of the great buildings in which are more than fifty acres of floor space devoted to our business. This picture was taken in the morning just before the commencement of business. These buildings are located in the residence section of the great City of Chicago and they are so large, towering so far above all other buildings in the immediate neighborhood that they may be seen for miles from almost any direction. Many of the railroad lines running in and out of Chicago pass within five or six miles of this great plant and the buildings may be seen from the car windows. From the observation tower on the Merchandise Building a birdseye view of the whole City of Chicago may be had on a reasonably clear day. Mail Opening and Mail Auditing Departments. If there is any one department in this establishment more interesting than another to the vast majority of our visitors, it is that department which receives our daily mail. As practically every order comes to us by mail, and our business has now grown to such an enormous volume, the mail received by us each day is of unusual proportions and it requires one hundred and twenty people to open and read the first class mail which comes to us each working day in the year. It is no uncommon experience for us to receive ninety thousand letters and postals in a single day. The government sends our mail by special wagon four times daily, and as rapidly as the mail sacks are received in the Mail Opening Department the letters and postals are passed through a machine which stamps the date and hour of arrival in the house on each and every piece, this work being performed automatically at the rate of eight hundred per minute. The postals are then separated from the letters and the edges of the envelopes opened by machinery. An expert operator on the mail opening machine will handle from ten thousand to twelve thousand letters per hour. The opened letters are passed to careful clerks who remove the contents from the envelopes and separate those letters containing orders from those relative to miscellaneous matters. In the Mail Auditing Department the orders sent us by our customers are read carefully to see that they are regular in every respect; that the catalog numbers, sizes, and all other necessary information has been given by the customer, so that we may intelligently handle his order. After the orders have been carefully scrutinized they are delivered to what we call the Cash Crediting Division. Here the cash creditors verify all monies and papers received and ascertain whether remittances are in regular form. After this handling in the Mail Auditing Department, the orders are sent to the Entry Department. It may be of interest for us to tell you that we have received in a single day's mail, customer orders accompanied by money orders, checks, drafts, and currency to a total of $353,000. Men's and Boys' Clothing. One of the greatest industries within our gigantic institution is our clothing manufacturing plant, with its complete and modern equipment, occupying the entire 9th floor of our huge Merchandise Building. To give you some idea of the immense clothing trade that this plant takes care of, we receive from 3,000 to 5,000 requests per day from our customers who desire our various free sample books of men's ready made clothing, men's made to order clothing and boys' clothing. These, together with our large catalogue, bring us clothing orders at the rate of from 4,000 to 6,000 per day. This shows how thoroughly the buying public appreciates the fact that we are quoting manufacturers’ prices on clothing (just about one half retail prices). We show you a view of part of our cutting department, where we have about 750,000 yards of cloth on hand all the time. We carry constantly a stock of about 50,000 men's ready made suits, not including overcoats and single pants, and a stack of about 25,000 boys' suits. This is constantly being sent out on orders from our customers, and being replaced by new stock from our manufacturing plant. Packing Goods For Shipment. The picture shown on the other side gives you a view down one side of our freight packing room, and will give you some idea of the army of men engaged in packing merchandise for shipment by freight to our customers. The freight packing room is an extremely large room in the center of the Merchandise Building and discovered with a great glass roof so that perfect light and ventilation are guaranteed the employees of this division. In the center of the room is a great balcony, seen to the right of this picture, where the empty boxes are kept in stock to be passed down to the men below as they need them. As an indication of the great quantity of merchandise which passes through this packing room in the course of twelve months, we would say that we used almost two million wooden boxes of various sizes in this room last year. The picture shown herewith gives you but a glimpse of this room. On the opposite side of the balcony is another row of freight packers; and a visit to this division of the shipping floor would prove to be one of the most interesting in the entire plant. Here the activities of the employees are visible; all of the merchandise to be sent out by freight comes to be handled; the great merchandise chutes bring the merchandise from all departments on the upper floors to the packing room. These men become very expert, handling the goods rapidly, at a glance determining just the right size box necessary to carry a given order. Fire Drill. Although we are protected by the city fire department as is every business institution in the City of Chicago, our plant is so extensive, it covers such a wide territory, and there are so many acres of floor space in the several buildings comprising the institution that we have installed special firefighting apparatus, with an independent water supply of our own. We maintain a fire department under the direction of one of the ablest fire chiefs in the West, and in every department certain employees are members of Volunteer Fire companies and are given daily drills, so that in case of emergency they will understand just what to do and how to do it. In the great power plant three high pressure pumps are under steam day and night and maintain the required volume of water in the reservoirs and tanks in the tower, and the requisite pressure on all our private water mains. Each of these pumps is capable of discharging one thousand gallons of water per minute and repeated fire drills, called unexpectedly from day-to-day, show that we have among our Volunteer Fire companies exceptionally capable firefighters, and that in any emergency we could depend upon them to do all that it is possible to do in fighting fire. Supplementing the regular firefighting apparatus…we have installed an elaborate system of sprinklers. Where the Big Catalogue Is Printed. This view through the center aisle of our press room in the Printing Building is but a glimpse of the largest private press room in the world. Each of these great presses receives the paper from a roll and prints, folds, and delivers five thousand thirty-two page sections of our Big Catalogue every hour. These great automatic machines, the most modern of their type, are run by electricity, and our visitors find this department one of the most interesting in our entire establishment. In the course of a year we send through these presses a strip of paper forty-six inches wide and long enough to wrap nine and four-fifths times around the world. If these rolls were piled end upon end, one on top of another, we would have a column of white paper thirty miles high and thirty-one inches in diameter. As this paper is made from wood pulp, the mills which produce it for us consume, every working day in the year, the spruce trees which grow on six acres of timberland. We have installed the very latest machinery of every sort from the press room to the bindery, and our organization is so thorough and the capacity of the Printing Department is so enormous that we are able to produce in a single day thirty thousand copies of our twelve hundred-page catalogue. We send out more than six million of these big books per year, and operating this big plant ourselves is another of the reasons we are able to name such low prices. Where the Type Is Set. The Composing Room is one of the busiest work rooms in the City of Chicago, and here are employed more than one hundred skilled printers who set the type used in the printing of all our catalogues, big and little, and all of the blank forms and stationery used in our business. As in every other department, we have employed the very best machinery, tools, and equipment with superior lighting and ventilating facilities, very important considerations in every printing office, and here every line you read on this card or any page of any of the catalogues you receive from us, is set in type. The enormous amount of labor required to produce our Big General Catalogue with its 1,200 pages can hardly be understood by anyone who sits down and peruses its pages. This great book with its 100,000 price quotations, its 10,000 illustrations, and 1,200 pages of descriptive matter is entirely made over twice each year, and for more than three months each spring and each fall, more than 100 men and women are busily engaged in handling the type and illustrations which enter into its composition. The value of each page in our catalog has become so great because of the quantities of this catalogue sent to our customers throughout the United States that we must economize in the use of paper and ink, and for this reason you will find the pages crowded full of a mass of information of value to you. We do not waste a single inch of white paper; and while the type is smaller than we would like to use, and our descriptions in many cases are brief, the stocks of merchandise we carry are so large that if we were to enter into a detailed description of each article sold by us, we would be compelled to issue a book several times larger than our present catalogue—the largest mail order catalogue in existence. Main Dining Room Seroco Restaurant. Not the least of the problems which confronted the management when it was decided to build the new plant in a residence district in the City of Chicago was that of providing meals for the nine thousand employees. It was manifestly impossible for them to find restaurants near the new plant either large enough or in sufficient number to supply their wants, and provision has been made in both the Administration and Merchandise buildings for a complete restaurant equipment serving meals morning, noon, and night. Our restaurants are five in number and together they comprise what is probably the largest restaurant in the world. It is certainly the largest in the City of Chicago and provides food for more people at one time than any other restaurant in existence. It is taxed to its utmost capacity at noon, and to facilitate the handling of the great number of people requiring service, employees are dismissed in relays, and under this plan it is possible for us to feed eight thousand four hundred in one hour and twenty minutes. We can take care of more than two thousand at a time and we have provided meals for twelve thousand five hundred in one day. It requires one hundred employees to provide this restaurant service. It is a matter of pride that the most careful inspection of our restaurants and their equipment by the health authorities of the City of Chicago has brought from them the statement that these are the cleanest and best restaurants which have come under their notice in this city. Every appliance, every convenience known to modern methods in the preparation of food is in use in this restaurant. Employees' Hospital. In a large business enterprise employing thousands of people, there is an ever present demand for the services of physicians and nurses, and in addition to the normal demand for the services of these professional people, there is a more pressing need for them now and then in an institution which combines and manufacturing with merchandising as we do. We have a great many automatic machines; We operate a great many elevators and conveyors; there are hundreds of electric motors throughout the plant; Sewing machines, cutting machines, weighing machines, and a vast variety of special apparatus requiring the attention of individuals. Under these conditions it is not surprising that in addition to sudden illness among employees we have accidents now and then, and in this stereoscopic view we show a portion of the Employees' Hospital in the tower of the Merchandise Building. We have in our employ two physicians and several trained nurses. The laboratory is very complete, and we have the very latest surgical apparatus and every appliance known to the best hospitals for the handling of emergency cases. We have been particularly fortunate so far since we opened this great merchandising plant in that we have had very few serious accidents. Closing Hour. It is indeed an inspiring sight to witness the departure of the great army of men and women employed in this merchandise institution at the close of the day's work. At half past five the streams of humanity pour out of the several buildings, and to the sidewalks, streetcars, and elevated trains are soon congested with a jolly mass of homeward bound humanity. All the streetcar lines and the elevated railway companies make special provision for handling the more than 9,000 people who work here day in and day out. During the rush hours in the morning, special cars and special trains are run to the plant; And in the rush hours of the evening, special cars and special trains are awaiting this great concourse of people. The picture shown herewith gives you but a glimpse in front of the Administration and the Printing Buildings. Less than 40 percent of our people find their employment in the Administration and Printing Buildings, so that this picture does not give you an adequate idea of the great crowds of people. No camera’s lens could possibly catch the full scope of the scene of life and animation between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.
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