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The cover of the Sears catalogue, 1900. Photo: Getty

As Sears filed for bankruptcy yesterday, we chronicled how the once-iconic department store has been misunderstanding its shoppers for decades. But early in Sears' long reign, it was a revolutionary force in the U.S., among other things subverting Jim Crow-era practices that blocked black Americans from shopping freely, and charged them usurious prices.

In the late 1800s, the rise of Big Retail was empowering for black consumers, says Louis Hyman, a historian of capitalism at Cornell and author of Temp. As Sears and Montgomery Wards pioneered mail order retail through catalogues, black shoppers at once had another source of goods besides predatory country and company stores to buy anything from

"Equal access for consumption was a long fight for African-Americans," Hyman, who had a tweetstorm yesterday on Sears and civil rights, tells Axios.

  • Before the mail-order houses, black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had no choice but to shop at local stores where they'd be served only after white customers and charged higher prices for the same goods. In many cases, the storeowners would flatly refuse to sell black shoppers certain items, Hyman said.
  • Now, black consumers in the South could pay cheap, national prices.
  • This created an enormous backlash, with country store owners rioting and burning catalogues in bonfires.

"It didn't really matter what [Sears' and Ward's] personal beliefs were," says Hyman. They inadvertently kick-started a revolution that lifted up black, immigrant, poor and illiterate consumers around America.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

Pfizer says COVID vaccine over 90% effective in kids

A health care worker preparing a Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine dose in New York City on Oct. 21. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Pfizer and BioNTech said their COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective at protecting children between the ages of 5 and 11 from symptomatic infections from the virus, according to a study posted online by the Food and Drug Administration Friday.

Why it matters: Pfizer is seeking an emergency use authorization to vaccinate children — one of the last groups of Americans still largely ineligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Changing the inflation conversation

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Inflation looks like it’ll run hot for longer than plenty of smart people thought it would. The conversation over just how much more Americans will have to pay for their stuff has taken on a new intensity, as supply problems show few signs of fading.

Why it matters: The rate of price growth has remained consistently strong in recent months — a time that some thought would bring cooling prices after an initial reopening spike. What goes on with prices will influence the decisions made by Congress, the Biden Administration, and the Federal Reserve.

The biggest headline from Biden's town hall

President Biden greets attendees during a commercial break in Baltimore last night. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

What matters from President Biden's town hall with CNN's Anderson Cooper at Baltimore Center Stage on Thursday:

The biggest headline: Biden is jettisoning the corporate tax increases that White House officials have insisted, for the past 10 months, are wildly popular across the country. He admitted he doesn't have the votes.