Gene Talmadge, three-term state commissioner of agriculture and three-term governor of Georgia once said “The poor dirt farmer ain’t got but three friends on this earth: God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, and Gene Talmadge.”
So, was Sears Roebuck really the best friend of the farmer? In this Footnote, we will examine the relationship between Sears Roebuck and farmers. This Footnote is Part I. It will continue next week by looking specifically at the relationship between Sears, Agricultural and Extension Education, 4-H, FFA, and NFA. This Footnote is a continuation of our efforts to document events and actions that have impacted agricultural and extension education but have basically disappeared. Sears is on the verge of disappearing.
The Early Days of Sears
Sears and Roebuck started out as the R. W. Sears Watch Company in 1886 in Minneapolis. At the age of 23, Richard Sears started to sell watches by mail order (mainly by advertising in periodicals). The business was a success and Sears decided a year later to relocate his business to Chicago to be more centrally located.
The people who bought watches from Sears asked if he could also repair watches. At the same time, Sears realized he could buy watch components from manufacturers and then make watches cheaper than buying them from watch companies. So, in April of 1887 Sears hire a young man from nearby Indiana who was a watch repairman and gifted tinkerer. Within a year, the young man, A. C. Roebuck was working seven days a week repairing watches and had eight watchmakers under his supervision.
In addition to selling watches, Sears started selling jewelry and diamonds. In 1889 Sears decided to sell his business and retire a rich man at the age of 25. After pursuing some other ventures Sears again joined up with Roebuck in 1891 and resumed selling watches, jewelry, diamonds, and other items under the Roebuck name. In 1893 the name was changed to “Sears, Roebuck and Company.”
By 1894 the merchandise line expanded to include revolvers, firearms, ammunition, sewing machines, bicycles, pianos, silverware, musical instruments, sports equipment, clothing, and more. Catalogs were printed and distributed; at first, they were free then there was a charge of five cents to cover postage. Roebuck sold his interest in the company in 1895 but allowed his name to continue to be used.
And as they say (whoever “they” is) the rest is history. Sears and Roebuck continued to flourish until recently.
Sears and the Farmer
The success of Sears can be attributed primarily to rural America. The Sears and Roebuck catalog was a godsend for the farm family. They could order anything they might need from Sears. Emmet and Jeuck (1950, p. 39) state “From his own rural and small-town background, Richard Sears knew the farmer’s mind. He understood the farmers’ needs and his desires—and he knew what farmers could afford to pay for goods.”
While on a hunting trip to North Dakota in 1902 Sears saw a farmer using a centrifugal cream separator. Sears wanted to know how it worked and how much it cost. He was intrigued. Sears decided on the spot he could have one manufactured and sold at 1/3 of the cost. The hunting trip was abandoned, and Sears pursued the idea of selling cream separators through Sears and Roebuck.
Emmet and Jeuck report that Sears produced and sold a cream separator (1950, p. 75) and “offered $1,000 in gold to any separator manufacturer who could produce a machine that would outskim Sear’s ‘Economy” separator at temperatures of 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 degrees.” The separators sold like the proverbial house on fire.
Figure 1. The Sears Economy Cream Separator Ad
In 1904 the company started a chain of food stores, all in Illinois (Pontiac, Watseka, Kankakee, and Elgin or Rockford). There was a catalog desk in the rear of the stores. Farmers could order items from the catalogs and then pay for them in produce, eggs, and butter which the store then sold. Customers who came in to buy food might end up ordering something from the catalog. The orders were sent to the stores for pickup. The stores were wildly successful; however, local merchants objected to these stores, so Sears shuttered them
Sears sold all types of farm equipment and supplies as the 1917 special catalog pictured below illustrates. You could buy windmills, fencing, incubators, beehives, buggies, wagons, and the list goes on.
Figure 2. The 1917 Sears Special Catalog for Farmers
From 1908 to 1940 Sears, Roebuck and Company sold around 100,000 home kits. There were over 400 styles of homes offered from the simple to the elegant. These homes were prefabricated, and you could assemble them yourself or more typically hire a carpenter. The materials were shipped by rail, and you would take a wagon or truck to the station to pick up the kits. No matter where you live today, there are probably some Sears homes in the area.
Based on the success of the home kits, in 1918 Sears introduced a new specialty catalog along the same line but for the farmer – Modern Farm Buildings and Barns. The catalog boasted of a big variety of scientifically planned farm buildings that the customer assembled. Sears sold corn cribs, tool sheds, a variety of barns including a round barn, and other farming-related structures. You could even order the Simplex Outhouse for $41.
Figure 3. The Sears Modern Farm Buildings and Barns Catalog.
Figure 4. The Sears Simplex Outhouse
In 1938 & 1939 Sears even sold tractors under the brand name of Economy. The tractors were made by the Peru Wheel Company of Peru, Illinois. Peru Wheel made the frame and most of the cast components and used rebuilt Ford Model A engines and transmissions for the drive train. Most sources place the total production run at about 500 tractors.
Figure 5. An advertisement for the Sears Economy Tractor.
Up until 1925 Sears was only a mail-order business. The first retail store was in Chicago in 1925. The number of stores increased rapidly and by 1931 retail stores topped mail-order sales. At its peak, Sears had over 3,000 retail stores. Many of the stores had a farm section.
What many people don’t know, is there were also Sears Farm Stores. In numerous agricultural communities, Sears established stores that catered to farmers. Many of the items you could order from the catalog could be bought at the Sears Farm Store. The stores were equivalent to the Tractor Supply Store, Southern States, Farm King, and similar stores now in operation.
Figure 6. The Sears Farm Store in Marion, Indiana in the 1940s.
Figure 7. A Sears Farm Store in North Carolina, 1950
Figure 8. A Sears Farm Store Opening Souvenir, 1949.
Figure 9. A Sears Farm Store Newspaper Advertisement, Muncie, IN.
Muncie Evening Press, Feb. 23, 1940
Sears was the largest retailer in America until the 1980s when stiff competition (i.e., Walmart) and some unwise investments and marketing decisions led to the decline of Sears.
This Footnote was merely setting the table for next week’s Friday Footnote. Next week we will look at the activities of the Sears Agricultural Foundation, the Sears agricultural scholars’ program, the adult short courses, the livestock chains, and other Sears activities that benefitted rural America, agricultural and extension education, the 4-H, the NFA, and FFA. Stay tuned.
Emmet, B. & Jeuck, J (1950). Catalogues and Counters. The University of Chicago Press.