Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck established Sears, Roebuck, and Co. in 1892.
On February 2, 1925, under the direction of Robert E. Wood, Sears opened its first retail store in the Merchandise Building, which was within the 1906 building complex in the North Lawndale community of Chicago. It was bounded on the North by West Arthington Street, the West by Central Park Avenue, the East by Spaulding Avenue, and the South by West Fillmore Street.
A second store opened in November 1928 at Lawrence and Winchester, followed by a growing list of locations in Chicago and beyond. In the first year, less than 5% of sales came from retail; by 1931, retail represented half of the company's sales. In 1932, Sears spent a million dollars to make William LeBaron Jenney's landmark 1891 Leiter Building its State Street flagship store. This store included an optical shop and a soda fountain.
|Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Chicago Tribune, Sunday, March 15, 1925, full-page Ad referring to the New Merchandise Building Store.
During the summer of 1928, three more Chicago department stores opened, one on the north side at Lawrence and Winchester, a second on the south side at 79th and Kenwood, and the third at 62nd and Western.
In 1929 Sears took over the department store business of the Becker-Ryan Company.
The Sears exhibit at Chicago’s A Century of Progress Exposition featured “a veritable pageant of merchandising during the last hundred years.”
In March of 1932, Sears opened its first downtown department store in Chicago on State and Van Buren Streets. Sears located the store in an eight-story building, built in 1893 by Levi Z. Leiter, which housed the Stegel-Cooper department store for years. The original Chicago occupant was William Bross, who, in 1871, mounted his house on wheels and rolled it down State Street to the corner of Van Buren Street. He kept his house on wheels for several years because of the marshy conditions of the land. Leiter's building, designed by famous skyscraper architect William LeBaron Jenny, included New England granite walls.
The store sat on the corner of Van Buren, State and Congress streets, costing over a million dollars to refurbish. A 72-foot-long electric Sears sign greeted shoppers at the front entrance. A stunning black and white terrazzo covered the main floor. The State Street store was the first Sears store in a downtown shopping district, the sixth store in Chicago.
Opening day for the State Street store took place deep in the Great Depression. Local newspapers reported that 15,000 shoppers visited the new store, and several thousand people flooded the store’s employment office. Sears did everything it could to help put people to work, employing 750 Chicago workers for four months during the renovation. Once completed, Sears staffing reached over 1,000 people.
In a message to Sears Chairman Lessing Rosenwald, Illinois Governor Louis Emmerson stated, "I cannot help but feel that this opening will mean a great deal for your organization as well as for your city." Rosenwald proudly proclaimed, "We regard the opening of our new store on the world’s greatest thoroughfare as one of the high spots of our company’s history."
The sale of tombstones, farm tractors, and ready-made milking stalls caught customers’ attention within the store. The sporting goods department featured a model-hunting lodge. The toy department was second in size to Marshall Field & Company, which at one time had the world's largest toy department.
Other attractions included a candy shop, soda fountain, lunch counters, a shoe repair shop, a pet shop, dentists, chiropodists, a first aid station with a trained nurse, a children’s playground, and a department for demonstrating kitchen utensils.
There were many other milestones through the years. Sears launched the Allstate Insurance Co. and a philanthropic organization, acquired Coldwell Banker and Dean Witter, introduced the Discover Card, and was the exclusive provider of many popular brands, including Kenmore and Craftsman.
This story is true. Sears had more to offer than just merchandise:
I hope you have all seen the reports about how Sears is treating its reservist employees who are called up for World War II (1939–1945) service? By law, they are required to hold their jobs open and available, but nothing more. Usually, people take a big pay cut and lose benefits as a result of being called up in WWII. Sears voluntarily paid the difference in salaries and maintained all company benefits, including medical insurance and bonus programs, for all reservist employees for up to two years. Sears is an exemplary corporate citizen and should be recognized for its contribution.
Descending to the basement, you’d ride the world’s skinniest escalator. Turn left, and you were in a wonderland of Craftsman tools. Turn right, and you were in a Hillman’s grocery store.
Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Chicago State Street Store closed its doors on April 6, 2014.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.