In 1886, a young railway station agent named Richard W. Sears made a small business deal that would end up laying the foundation for one of America’s most iconic retailers.
Sears, just 23 years old at the time, purchased a shipment of watches that a local Minnesota jeweler refused to accept, and then resold them to other railway agents up and down the line.
A Business is Born As described in the provided background documents, this watch-selling side business quickly took off, allowing Sears to quit his railroad job within just a few months.
He then moved the fledgling R.W. Sears Watch Company to Chicago in 1887 to expand operations. The next year, Sears placed a newspaper ad seeking a watchmaker that drew Alvah C. Roebuck into the business.
By 1893, the successful watch sales partnership between Sears and Roebuck formally launched as Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Serving Rural America From these very modest beginnings in Minnesota, Sears, Roebuck, and Company rapidly grew into a mail-order retail giant.
As explained, the company leveraged the expanding railroad infrastructure to efficiently reach rural American families, greatly underserved by traditional retailers.
The Sears catalog ultimately grew to over 500 pages by the late 1800s, allowing rural communities access to hundreds of products that previously required lengthy trips into distant towns.
From watches and jewelry, the merchandise expanded dramatically into categories like clothing, furniture, china, bicycles, sewing machines, sporting goods, and even buggies.
An Icon is Born Over the next century, the company founded by a small-time railroad agent in Minnesota transformed into one of America’s most recognizable brands.
Sears revolutionized retail through pioneering concepts like kit homes, Christmas wish book catalogs, and suburban department stores.
Along the way, it spawned other prominent brands like Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard, and even Allstate Insurance.
While the past decades have seen the company’s fortunes fade against modern retail challengers, the Sears story serves as a quintessential embodiment of American entrepreneurial vision and innovation.
So next time you walk into a Sears, think back to 1886 Minnesota, where a young railway agent took a chance shipment of watches and helped launch an empire. The origins may have been humble, but the impact was monumental.
- The Rise and Fall of Sears. Smithsonian Magazine
- The Incredible Shrinking Sears The New York Times
- Sears History—1886. Sears Archives
- The Sears Christmas Wish Book, A Holiday Tradition. Sears Archives
- What is a Sears Modern Home? Sears Archives
- Sears to Sell the Iconic Craftsman Brand After 90 Years. Popular Mechanics
- When Sears, the Facebook of its era, launched its IPO. Chicago Tribune
- Featured Image: “Sears Roebuck North Avenue Milwaukee Store Press Photo,” Phillip Pessar