Thursday, November 8, 2018

Sears, Capitalism and Jim Crow

From Intellectual Takeout:
Prior to 1893, rural households could not receive mail directly at their homes. Instead, farm families were forced to travel long distances to pick up their mail from the post office. This obviously presented a problem for many black families, as going to these central locations came with the potential for humiliation and danger. Of course, this may not have been such a huge problem had the federal government allowed for competition over the post. But since the US Postal Service had a monopoly over the transportation of the mail, there was little that could be done to remedy this problem without the federal government enacting a law.

After Congress passed the Rural Free Delivery Act, this all changed. The Chicago-based company was finally able to send Sears catalogs to the homes of rural southerners with ease. And this made all the difference in the world. As Louis Hyman, an associate professor of history at Cornell University tweeted last week, “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.”

Sears had a policy that it would accept any order it received, regardless of the format. This meant that customers were not strictly limited to the use of an official order slip. And since many black southerners could not read or write at the time, this was especially helpful. So long as you could scribble on a piece of scrap paper that you needed a pair of overalls in size large, and paid the required amount, Sears would send you what you needed. The Bitter Southerner commented on this policy, saying, “...even if it was written in broken English or nearly illegible, the overalls would be shipped.”

Since ordering through the post offered consumers anonymity, Sears had almost no idea which of its customers were black and which were white, ensuring that each customer was treated equally. So long as you had the money to pay for an item, the item would be shipped to you. But this helped with more than just clothing and household goods.

Few people remember that Sears used to sell actual homes, as well. After sending the materials via mail, the buyers would then assemble these homes on their own. And for black families looking to own homes in the segregated South, this helped bypass the scrutiny of those who refused to sell or build homes for anyone who wasn’t white. (Read more.)

No comments: