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How Sears undercut racism in retail, 100 years ago

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.

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