It’s in the mail

For many years Illinoisans and most other Americans have taken advantage of mail-order shopping, particularly around the holidays. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic making many of us shy about visiting retail establishments in person, the whole idea of being able to shop online or via catalog has taken on a whole new appeal.

But it isn’t a new idea. In fact, the concept of mail order shopping got a big boost right here in Illinois almost 150 years ago when a young man named Richard Sears found a unique way to promote his business selling watches.

Sears partnered with a watch repairman named Alvah Roebuck and soon expanded his company from watches to jewelry, and then many other household items. In the 1880s Sears and Roebuck relocated from their native Minnesota to Chicago, the transportation hub of the nation. In 1893 the company officially became known as Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Rather than relying on what we today refer to as a brick-and-mortar operation, Sears would print up the details of his products in book form and distribute them to farmers throughout the Midwest who could then mail in their orders and payment. This first booklet was printed in 1888.

It was the beginning of the Sears catalog.

Sears and Roebuck came along at exactly the right moment in history. Farmers across the Midwest were growing increasingly angry at retail establishments which they felt were jacking up their prices and gouging the farmers, who were struggling to get by in the difficult economy of the early 1890s. A big part of their ire was directed at “middlemen” who inflated the price of seemingly everything, taking advantage of rural residents who had few choices when it came to retail establishments.

Sears shrewdly capitalized on their frustration, offering to cut out the middleman and utilize the new commercial paths of expanded rail connections and rural free mail delivery to reach a large market.

Business boomed. Within a few years the Sears catalog was over 500 pages long and included everything from clothing and shoes to furniture, bicycles and musical instruments. Sales came in at more than three quarters of a million dollars.

Not long after that Roebuck left the company for health reasons and a Springfield clothing company executive named Julius Rosenwald became vice president. Rosenwald (whose childhood home was across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s house in Springfield) combined his talents for efficiently processing orders with Sears’ marketing genius to turn Sears and Roebuck into one of the largest retail companies in the world. By 1907, Sears & Roebuck were selling $50 million in products through their catalog.

Those products were no longer just limited to household goods. Sears was now selling entire houses.

Starting in 1908 it was possible to order a Sears Modern Home and receive its components entirely via mail. For the 30-plus years that Sears was in the mail-order house business, the company sold close to 75,000 houses in over 400 different designs. Some of these houses still stand today in different parts of the state from suburban Libertyville to Carlinville, southwest of Springfield.

The company was also growing its physical footprint in Chicago. From a small rented building in the early 1890s, Sears moved to a six-story headquarters in 1896, and then into a series of newly-built structures around the city. The most prominent of these was a 40-acre plant on the city’s west side which opened in 1906. The plant managers were constantly innovating ways to process and ship orders correctly and on time, including a processing system for moving items through the plant for delivery. Legend has it that Henry Ford examined this process as an inspiration for his own assembly line.

One casualty of the dramatic growth was the writing style of the catalog, which had gone from Richard Sears’ flowery descriptions of the company’s early products to a much more standardized description of items, with an emphasis on their low prices.

So successful was Sears in building its brand that when competition and the growing urbanization of the country forced the company to add a brick-and-mortar component to its business plan in the early 1920s it was able to do so quickly and successfully. The first retail store opened in Sears’ mail order plant in Chicago in 1925 with seven more to follow that year. In 1928 there were 192 stores, and 400 by 1933.

One of these competitors was a Chicago-based company founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward. His company had followed a similar strategy of using the mail to market and deliver goods to residents of the rural parts of the country. Ward had been a traveling salesman and learned much about the wants and needs of farmers and other rural residents, as well as their frustrations about the cost of shipping goods to them far from the cities.

He produced his first catalog in 1872 – a single sheet of paper. Like Sears, Ward offered a money-back guarantee and took advantage of bulk-purchasing discounts. He too used the cash-by-mail order to cut out the middlemen in his business.

The Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House was a massive building which opened in 1908 along the bank of the Chicago River. By that time Ward was distributing as many as three million catalogs to customers each year. Ward was also moving to add retail stores to its mail-order business in the 1920s, including its flagship store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

Among those leading the effort was Anne Swainson, the company’s first woman executive. A former university teacher and design director at a New York brass and copper firm, Swainson was hired by Ward in 1932 as the director of the company’s Bureau of Design. She led the effort to revamp Ward’s catalog as well as its supply chain and production processes.

Her efforts produced results: Ward actually turned a profit during the darkest years of the Great Depression, saving countless jobs and also keeping consumer goods within reach of millions of struggling Americans.

“Merchandise designing is in its infancy,” Swainson said of the ever-evolving field, “The surface hasn’t been scratched yet. But the idea and practice of it are increasing rapidly.”

The two companies did battle for the same share of the market in the early 20th-century. By this time they were the nation’s largest retailers. Ward promoted the slogan, “You can’t go wrong when you deal with Montgomery Ward,” while Sears boasted of being, “the cheapest supply house on Earth.”

Montgomery Ward Building in Chicago 
Forced to innovate by the challenges of the Great Depression, both companies focused on improving their product lines for middle-class consumers. They also diversified into advising consumers on bringing their houses up to date with the latest modern products. In the 1920s Sears owned a powerful radio station in Chicago to which it assigned call letters honoring it as the World’s Largest Store.

Both companies prospered through the middle part of the 20th century. Sears even built the world’s tallest building in downtown Chicago to house its corporate headquarters. But increasing competition, both from US-based companies and growing overseas supply chains made things difficult for them in the later decades.

Montgomery Ward largely went out of business in 2001, though subsidiaries and spinoff companies continue to endure. Sears also struggled in the 21st century, paring back operations and filing for bankruptcy in 2018, though it too remains in business in a limited capacity. Many of its product lines, like Kenmore, DieHard and Craftsman, are common household names today.

Though the two retailers are just a shadow of their former selves, their impact on the global economy is impossible to miss. Mail-order and online retailing are among the leading pathways for purchasing consumer goods in the United States and around the world. And they got their start from a couple of competing Chicago businessmen who 100 years ago built the largest retailers in the world.