👓 Sears’s ‘radical’ past: How mail-order catalogues subverted the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow | Washington Post

Read Sears’s ‘radical’ past: How mail-order catalogues subverted the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow (Washington Post)
Monday’s announcement that Sears would file for bankruptcy and close 142 stores came as little surprise to anyone who has followed the retail giant’s collapse in recent years. Still, the news inspired a wave of nostalgia for a company that sold an ideal of middle-class life to generations of Americans. A lesser-known aspect of Sears’s 125-year history, however, is how the company revolutionized rural black Southerners’ shopping patterns in the late 19th century, subverting racial hierarchies by allowing them to make purchases by mail or over the phone and avoid the blatant racism that they faced at small country stores.

A rehash and an expansion of a tweetstorm I saw the other day.

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👓 Thread by @louishyman: “In my history of consumption class, I teach about , but what most people don’t know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era o […]” #Sears #Jim #twitterstorians #thread

Read Thread by @louishyman: "In my history of consumption class, I teach about , but what most people don't know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era o […]" #Sears #Jim #twitterstorians #thread (threadreaderapp.com)
In my history of consumption class, I teach about #Sears, but what most people don't know is just how radical the catalogue was in the era of #Jim Crow. #twitterstorians
Every time a black southerner went to the local store they were confronted with forced deference to white customers who would be served first.
And the store would be filled with racist caricatures of black people in an effort to sell to white people.
The stores were not self-service, so the black customers would have to wait. And then would have to ask the proprietor to give them goods (often on credit because...sharecropping). The landlord often owned the store. In every way shopping reinforced hierarchy. Until #Sears
The catalog undid the power of the storekeeper, and by extension the landlord. Black families could buy without asking permission. Without waiting. Without being watched. With national (cheap) prices!
Southern storekeepers fought back. They organized catalogue bonfires in the street.
These general stores often doubled as post offices. The owners would refuse to sell stamps to black people, or money orders, to use the catalogue services.
Happened enough that sears instructed customers to evade the postmaster and directly speak to the mail carrier: “just give the letter and the money to the mail carrier and he will get the money order at the post office and mail it in the letter for you.”
In an attempt to undermine #Sears, rumors spread that Sears was black (to get white customers to stop buying from him). Sold by mail “these fellows could not afford to show their faces as retailers” Sears, in turn, published photos to “prove” he was white.
These rumors didn’t affect sales but show how race and commerce connected in the countryside. And how dangerous it was to the local order, to white supremacy, to have national markets.
So as we think about #Sears today, let's think about how retail is not just about buying things, but part of a larger system of power. Every act of power contains the opportunity, and the means, for resistance.
Wow. So much response! If you would like to know more about the larger history of Sears and resisting white supremacy, check out this video from our series on the history of capitalism. #thread. Also #JohnHenry and #webDubois.
You *may* have noticed that race and capitalism were not just problems in the 19th century. As I write about, African-Americans have always had a less equal access to the market, whether as consumers or as workers. For more: amazon.com/Temp-American-…
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