How Sears helped make women, immigrants and people of color feel more like Americans

Sears was more than just the pioneer of mail-order catalogs over 100 years in the past. Sears was a major retailer in making America more welcoming in a time when Jim Crow was rampant, and women weren’t allowed to vote.

Although it’s just the latest in a number of retail establishments that have been ruined in recent times, Sears’s loss is a shock to me as I’m a U.S. historian who studies the way that consumer culture influences the gender and race of people.

Much more than counterparts, Sears and its catalog of mail-order items – played a role in ushering into the modern consumption culture that was a key factor in making immigrants, women, and other people who are of color feel included in American life.

The way we shop is changing.

The October 2018 declaration that Sears established in 1893, with Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck – had filed for bankruptcy didn’t come as a complete surprise. The firm, which was initially an online catalog and then grew into a department store chain, was struggling for a long time.

For the younger Americans who are used to buying online by clicking a few buttons and receiving almost anything they desire in a package that arrives at their doorstep in one or two days, The news of Sears closing its doors may seem like a minor difference. The idea of shoppers cramming the streets of downtown on their shopping trips or the joy of receiving the catalog for the season in the mail is not familiar to them.

However, by the end of the 19th century, when department stores, trade catalogs, and even department stores such as Sears started appearing in the American landscape, they influenced not just the way people consumed things but also the culture and society. At the same time, consumption was becoming essential to Americans’ perception of their identities and status as citizens.

Particularly for marginalized groups like women, African Americans, and immigrants who were frequently excluded from power positions and influence, the consumer culture provided them with the opportunity to be involved in American political life, to confront the effects of race, gender, and class discrimination, and fight for justice.

A librarian examines the early Sears Roebuck catalog dating from 1902. 

Women are welcome to enter the doors.

The development of department stores in the middle of the 19th century helped facilitate the ease of consuming manufactured goods. Since consumption was predominantly related to women as well, it played a crucial part in changing gender expectations.

In particular, department stores challenged their Victorian “separate spheres” idea, which prevented women from participating in the public sphere. The new stores let women make use of their status as consumers to gain greater freedoms beyond the confines of home.

It was the early department stores were geared toward middle-class women and were dependent on their spending. They were designed to be “semi-private” spaces in which women could shop or eat out without violating the norms of sexual respectability and yet giving women the possibility of expanding “the domestic sphere” into the urban sphere.

The aggregation of these retail stores led to the creation of new shopping areas that re-created urban regions as a welcoming space for women. Instead of being the filthy, unsafe, and hostile areas, downtowns were once department stores that enabled the development of clean and safe walkways, well-lit areas, and large window displays that enticed women to their shops.

As a result, department stores also made women feel more comfortable in their presence in the city and allowed them to assert more than their shopping rights. Women benefited from their status as consumers to struggle for the right to vote as well as political freedoms, making use of the window displays of department stores as a way to announce their cause and draw people’s attention.

Dresses, gramophones, and horseshoes for everyone

However, not everyone participated in these brand-new “freedoms” equally.

Department stores mostly accepted middle-class white customers. The barriers of race and class impeded women from the working class and non-whites from fully participating in retail life.

But, even if the tangible retail space was distinct, the mail-order catalog a marketing technique that Sears developed and was later famous for – presented an even more inclusive picture of American democracy.

A Sears Roebuck catalog from 1902. 

Since 1896, the year after Congress adopted the Rural Free Delivery Act, Sears catalogs reached across the nation, offering everything from a dress to a drill to horseshoes or the gramophone at affordable prices for the majority of people. The vibrantly illustrated catalogs were appealing to rural customers even though the majority of them not being able to read were still able to participate through the images.

Utilizing the fashion revolution, Sears catalogs offered women of all classes, races and ethnicities the opportunity to dress in the same fashion as fashionable women of Paris as well as New York, turning consumption into a force for modernity, as well as democratic principles.

For women who were immigrants for women who were born abroad, the “American Styles” that were sold at Sears allowed them to eliminate the stigma of “foreignness” and appear as an American with all the advantages of American citizenship.

For African-Americans living from those who lived in the Jim Crow South, Sears catalogs also served as a means to assert their citizenship and to challenge the discrimination of racism. As the research of scholars has shown that shopping through a catalog that was mail-order enabled African-Americans to claim their right to be included as equals in the marketplace and transform the act of buying a catalog by mail into a form of protest.

In a time when most department stores did not have a policy of welcoming African-Americans or did not treat them with respect, mail-order catalogs, such as Sears’ Sears, were the best option to bypass these barriers. The catalogs also served as a kind of fantasy that allowed one to be a part, even if it was only through imagination, in mainstream culture of consumption as a whole.

The shoppers leave Sears Outlet Store in Downers Grove in 1993.

Will Americans continue to share a consumer identity?

The great success of Sears catalogs to reach different communities led to an experience that was common to all shoppers and eventually, a common sense of identity, around which all Americans could come together.

Through its catalogs and culture of consumption, Americans from all walks of life – urban and rural women and men, both black and white, wealthy and poor – could wear the same clothes, eat the same, and reside in identical homes that were shipped to them. It was also through their consumption that they could see them as Americans.

The internet of today provides us with “one-of-a-kind” items and a personal shopping experience that is different from others, Sears won’t be around to provide us with this unique identity. That’s right, the power of democracy in consumption is shifting with the changing of the retail industry.

The demise of Sears and other organizations which created a culture of shared consumption has me wondering if the consumer culture will continue to determine our society and our democratic system. And if yes, then how.


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