Skip to main content

The Rise and Fall of Sears

A display area containing various items that can be purchased from the Sears catalog.  


It’s no secret that internet shopping on Amazon is causing lackluster sales at department stores like Sears. There was a time, however, when Sears Roebuck and Co. was one of the premier places to shop.

At about the turn of the century, Chicago-based Sears Roebuck and Co. shipped most of its items to individuals using the mail system, just like Amazon does these days. The only difference is that people ordered the items from a catalog instead of through the internet.

Sears Roebuck and Co. also produced some really neat postcards in the early 1900s to promote working for the company. Some of the postcard images reminded me of television clips of Amazon employees working at distribution centers. The postcards include images and text showing and describing work in the shipping rooms and the in-house catalog printing and order processing departments.

Women working in the entry department placing customer orders onto tickets for the shipping department.

These postcards have made me wonder if department stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward wrote the rules for first showcasing goods and then delivering them using the mail system. Sorry, Amazon!

Richard W. Sears moved his watch-selling business from Minneapolis to Chicago in 1887 and hired watchmaker Alvah C. Roebuck to assist him. The men sold their watch business in 1895 and started the mail-order firm. The company became successful very quickly and soon began to surpass sales at Montgomery Ward.

Like Montgomery Ward, Sears printed thick catalogs for customers and sold all sorts of items, from clothing to furniture to even kit homes that you could build yourself. Many of these homes can be found today in west suburban Berwyn and Downers Grove, among other places.

By 1906, the company had 9,000 employees with $50 million in annual sales. The company, which was famous for its "no money down" credit policy, pushed sales up to $235 million by 1924. It also began opening retail stores and had 300 Sears stores across the country by 1929. It opened its flagship store on State Street in Chicago in 1932.

By the 1970s, sales rose to $10 billion per year, and the company decided to move its headquarters from a complex on Chicago's west side to the newly constructed world’s tallest building, once named the Sears Tower. Soon after that, however, discount stores like Kmart began competing with Sears and sales began to decline.


Orders ready for freight shipment and workers using baskets to separate items.

By the 1990s, the company began laying people off and moved its headquarters out of the tower to suburban Hoffman Estates. While some Sears stores are still around today, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018, citing many reasons. Most conclude that Sears is failing due to staunch competition with internet shopping companies like Amazon.

Like Montgomery Ward, Marshall Fields and even Kmart, the big question now will be the future fate of Sears, a Chicago company that we once thought would be around forever.




Workers weigh items to determine proper shipping costs. 


Workers use slides to help transport items from upper floors. 



Workers use huge printing presses to print out the Sears catalog for millions of customers. 



Workers enjoy a day of fun at an annual field gathering at the former Sears complex.  


The huge former Sears Roebuck & Co. complex in Chicago featured a water fountain and gardens near the entrance. 


Sears moved its headquarters to the Sears Tower after the building was constructed in the early 1970s and became the world's tallest building for a short time. 


Comments

  1. I had no idea how well organized their system was! The postcards ( and of course your comments) tell the story really well. For me, Sears was always the go-to store for anything like an appliance, lawn mower etc. The name was practically synonymous with reliability and value. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Lost Souls on Chicago's Forgotten Suicide Bridge

On this postcard, the bridge is called Suicide Bridge instead of its official name High Bridge. Postcard publication is unknown.  A tall pedestrian bridge that was built over the Lincoln Park Lagoon in 1894 was later dubbed “Suicide Bridge” after the structure became a popular place for people to take their own lives . It is believed that about 100 people jumped off of the bridge during its 25 years. Located south of Fullerton and east of Lincoln Park Zoo near Webster Avenue (originally called Asylum Place), High Bridge allowed pedestrians to cross from Lincoln Park to the lakefront. At 75 feet--or four stories--tall, the bridge was built high enough to allow sailboats to pass underneath. It was so high that people standing on the bridge on a clear day could see as far as the stockyards, Jackson Park, and the steel mills.   High Bridge was featured in a chase scene in the 1916 film Cousin Jim . The stuntman hired to jump off the bridge refused to do it because he thought

Marshall Field's at Christmas

  The aisle on the first floor of the State Street store is 358 feet long. Postcard publisher is unknown.  Many Chicagoans continue to miss visiting Marshall Field’s during the holiday season. Just talking about the famed Christmas windows and holiday decorations brings about memories of the department store’s glory days. Many of us can recall the strong smell of perfume that would greet visitors upon entering the flagship State Street store, along with the huge white Romanesque columns decorated with Christmas fare on the first floor. The real fun, however, was taking the elevator to the 7 th floor to get a glimpse of the giant Christmas tree inside the Walnut Room restaurant. The best place to view the tree was one floor up on a balcony area. Christmas decorations on the first floor. Postcard publisher is unknown.  Frango mint chocolates were piled high in various areas throughout the store, and many visitors couldn’t resist buying a box. Frango chocolates were once made in a kitc

Putting the “Toddle” Back in “That Toddling Town”

  Postcard designed and sold by appshop. The “toddle” was a jazz dance step that became popular across the nation just in time for the Roaring Twenties. And Chicago became known as “that toddling town” thanks to the lyrics of Fred Fisher’s 1922 song “Chicago (That Toddling Town).” While many still know Frank Sinatra’s famous cover version of that song, the dance step has largely been forgotten. In a 1921 South Bend News-Times article, dance teacher Arthur Murray describes the toddle as having the “delightful abandon so characteristic of everything American.” According to Murray, the toddle was similar to the shimmy but without the shoulder shakes. It also bore a resemblance to the fox trot but with an extra bounce added to the steps. Songwriter Fred Fisher was not the first to associate the toddle with Chicago. A variation of the toddle, which focused on movements of the hips rather than the feet, was called “the Chicago toddle” or simply “the Chicago.” In 1921, a print advertiseme