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How The Sears Catalog Was Revolutionary In The Jim Crow Era


When I was a little girl, I spent hours poring over the Sears catalog. I had my eye on a Holly Hobbie Oven. And aside from the fact that you could bake real cakes in it, what I loved about shopping from the Sears catalog was nobody knew I was a kid. I could browse at my own pace - no shop assistant ignoring me or talking over my head to my parents.

It turns out that feeling, the ability to shop without being judged, resonated in a different, more profound way for black Americans in the Jim Crow era. Cornell historian Louis Hyman argues the Sears catalog was radical in its day because it allowed black Americans to have the same shopping experience as whites. He's been pondering that legacy in light of this week's news that Sears has filed for bankruptcy.

Professor Hyman, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LOUIS HYMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Why was the Sears catalog such a game changer for black shoppers in the Jim Crow South?

HYMAN: In the era of Jim Crow, race was everything. And for black Americans, most of whom were rural farmers, access to goods on an equal basis as whites in faraway cities at reasonable prices was a godsend. And that's what the catalog was.

KELLY: I mean, from a practical point of view, what had happened previously was they would show up and they would be asked to - what? - go to the back of the line behind the white customers. And if you're shopping by catalog, nobody knows what color you are.

HYMAN: Nobody knows who you are. And in the era of Jim Crow, there was a constant act of deference. If you were black, you had to wait until all the white customers were served. You had to wait until the white store owner let you buy whatever you wanted. And he may or may not have let you 'cause it was largely on credit.

KELLY: So the Sears catalog appears. People could read it at home. They could decide what they wanted to order. But there were still challenges, right? I mean, Southern store owners fought back.

HYMAN: Oh, definitely because if you were an African-American and you wanted to shop in some other way, you were contesting their power - not just the power of the store owner and the power the landlord but basically the power of white supremacy, of Jim Crow itself. And so you had lots of store owners pushing back - you know, burning catalogs in the street very publicly.

KELLY: Burning Sears catalogs in the streets.

HYMAN: Burning Sears catalogs in bonfires in the streets - all kinds of incentives to destroy these catalogs.

KELLY: So what did Sears do to keep all their customers able to order their products?

HYMAN: Well, he published instructions in the catalog - how to simply give the requirements to the postman so you didn't have to go through the store. And in a lot of places, the post office was also the general store, so it was pretty complicated to even get your order submitted to the catalog. But they found lots of ways to do this for rural African-Americans as well as immigrants, people who didn't even speak English. They had all kinds of clerks available to take your order in nearly any tongue.

KELLY: So your takeaway is - what? - that this is a reflection on buying power on retail as resistance.

HYMAN: Yeah, I think it's a story of the deep contradiction between Jim Crow and consumer capitalism that you can see in lots of places, particularly in this moment in - near around 1900 but also later in the 1950s and '60s as African-Americans acquire more buying power. This is part of the demand for civil rights - that African-Americans could use buses and restaurants and toilets and theatres and everything else that's part of consumer capitalism, that this is one of the essential rights - a very conservative right - of American capitalism.

KELLY: Louis Hyman - he teaches history at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Louis Hyman, thanks so much.

HYMAN: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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