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OPINION: Sears was the Amazon of its time

OPINION: Sears was the Amazon of its time

But before we get to the good stuff, some basics:

Sears, Roebuck and Co. had its start in the 1880s, when most people in this country lived in rural, farming areas where small-town merchants offered meager selection at high prices. As its catalog business grew, along with the railroad network and Rural Free Delivery from the Post Office, Sears offered a wide selection of goods at popular prices — hundreds of items on hundreds of illustrated pages, from shoes, to women’s clothes, to wagons, fishing tackle, china, musical instruments, firearms and bicycles — available for the first time in every Podunk, Hicksville and Frostbite Falls from sea to shining sea.

Eventually, Sears would offer Craftsman tools (with their famous unconditional guarantee), Kenmore and Coldspot appliances, Silvertone radios, Harmony House furniture, Allstate insurance and Allstate cars (made by Kaiser), and complete Sears Modern Homes house kits (around 75,000 were sold in all, for as little as $450, and many of them must still be standing). By September of each year, Sears would flood the countryside with its famous catalog in anticipation of Christmas shopping. And long after Christmas, the catalog would find another use in rural outhouses (or so they say).

Then, as farmland gave way to suburbs, Sears stores would come to anchor countless shopping centers. By the1960s it was the largest retailer in the world, with around 350,000 employees and sales of over a billion dollars a month. Both in sheer size and in innovation, Sears, Roebuck and Co. was the of its time. But now, after only 132 years in business, Sears has gone bankrupt. (Some stores, including Meriden’s, will remain open, at least for now.) Last year, the famous Craftsman brand was sold to Stanley Black and Decker, and Sears even made a deal to sell its Kenmore appliances through Amazon — the archrival online retailer that has become the Sears of its time.

Now the good stuff: Unmentionables!

In olden times — like the Fifties and Sixties, long before sex education was invented — there was the Sears catalog, with page after page of mysterious bras, panties, garter belts, girdles (“foundation garments”) and the various snaps or other connectors required to hold these things in place — all illustrated for young eyes to marvel over. You’d think that one or two models of each item would be enough, but instead there was amazing variety, and it was amazing (for the minds of young males) to think that, under the clothes of normal women you’d see all the time — possibly even including teachers — were these exotic garments, with all this complicated engineering going on. At least according to the Sears catalog, And surely, if it was in the Sears catalog, it must be real. Nothing kinky, though; everything was white, even if some of it had unnecessarily frilly stitching. This was not Frederick’s of Hollywood, after all (not that we’d ever heard of Frederick’s of Hollywood at that age). But still …

The men’s underwear in the Sears catalog was equally odd, if structurally less interesting: strangely clinical looking garments that your father or grandfather probably wore but that, fortunately, never came back in style. Meanwhile, you were still in tighty-whities.

Anyway, that’s how it was before sex ed.

Reach Glenn Richter at