How the Sears Catalog Disrupted the Jim Crow South and Helped Give Birth to the Delta Blues & Rock and Roll

For all of the jus­ti­fied ire direct­ed at cer­tain online retail­ers for their anti-com­pet­i­tive prac­tices, tax eva­sion, labor exploita­tion, and so on, one fact often goes unre­marked upon since it seems to fall out­side the usu­al nar­ra­tives. The explo­sion of online retail gave pur­chas­ing pow­er to peo­ple locked out of cer­tain mar­kets because of income or geog­ra­phy or dis­abil­i­ty, etc. More­over, it gave peo­ple out­side of tra­di­tion­al mar­ket demo­graph­ics the oppor­tu­ni­ty to exper­i­ment with new inter­ests in judg­ment-free zones.

These changes have allowed a gen­er­a­tion of musi­cians access to instru­ments they would nev­er have been will­ing or able to find in the past. For exam­ple, Fend­er gui­tars has dis­cov­ered that women now account for 50 per­cent of all “begin­ner and aspi­ra­tional play­ers,” notes Rolling Stone. “The instru­ment-mak­er is adjust­ing its mar­ket­ing focus accord­ing­ly… around a mas­sive new audi­ence that it’d pre­vi­ous­ly been ignor­ing.” Walk­ing into a music store and feel­ing like you’ve been ignored by the big com­pa­nies may not make for an encour­ag­ing expe­ri­ence. But the abil­i­ty to buy gear online with­out a has­sle may be one sig­nif­i­cant rea­son why so many more women have tak­en up the instru­ment.

Which brings us to Sears. Yes, it’s a round­about way to get there, but bear with me. You’ve sure­ly heard the news by now, the ven­er­a­ble retail giant has gone bank­rupt after 132 years in business—a casu­al­ty of preda­to­ry cap­i­tal­ism or bad busi­ness prac­tices or the inevitably chang­ing times or what-have-you. A num­ber of eulo­gies have described the company’s ear­ly “cat­a­logue shop­ping sys­tem” as “the Ama­zon of its day,” as Lila MacLel­lan points out at Quartz. The com­par­i­son sure­ly fits. Dur­ing its hey­day, peo­ple all over the coun­try, in the most far-flung rur­al areas, could order almost any­thing, even a house.

But a num­ber of sto­ries, includ­ing MacLel­lan’s, have also described Sears, Roe­buck & Com­pa­ny as a great equal­iz­er of its day for the way it bust­ed the Jim Crow bar­ri­ers black shop­pers once faced. Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Louis Hyman has post­ed a thread on his Twit­ter and giv­en an inter­view on Jezebel describ­ing the democ­ra­tiz­ing pow­er of the Sears Cat­a­log in the late 19th cen­tu­ry for black Amer­i­cans, most of whom lived in rur­al areas (as did most Amer­i­cans gen­er­al­ly) and had to suf­fer dis­crim­i­na­tion from white shop­keep­ers, who charged inflat­ed prices, denied sales and cred­it, forced black cus­tomers to wait at the back of long lines, and so on.

Hyman talks about this spe­cif­ic his­to­ry in the video lec­ture above (start­ing at 6:24). The vicious­ness of seg­re­ga­tion didn’t stop at the store. As he says, local post­mas­ters would often refuse to sell stamps or mon­ey orders to black cus­tomers. The Sears Cat­a­log, then, includ­ed spe­cif­ic instruc­tions for giv­ing cash direct­ly to mail car­ri­ers. Store­keep­ers burned the cat­a­logs, but still rur­al cus­tomers were able to get their hands on them and order what they need­ed, pay cash, and receive it with­out dif­fi­cul­ty. A new world opened up for peo­ple pre­vi­ous­ly shut out of many con­sumer mar­kets, and this includ­ed, writes Chris Kjor­ness at Rea­son, turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry musi­cians.

The Sears gui­tar, says Michael Roberts, who teach­es the his­to­ry of the blues at DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty, “was inex­pen­sive enough that the blues artists were able to save up the mon­ey they made as share­crop­pers to make that pur­chase.” As Kjor­ness puts it, “There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, read­i­ly avail­able steel-string gui­tars. And those gui­tars, which trans­formed Amer­i­can cul­ture, were brought to the boon­docks by Sears, Roe­buck & Co.”

The first Sears, Roe­buck cat­a­log was pub­lished in 1888. It would go on to trans­form Amer­i­ca. Farm­ers were no longer sub­ject to the vari­able qual­i­ty and arbi­trary pric­ing of local gen­er­al stores. The cat­a­log brought things like wash­ing machines and the lat­est fash­ions to the most far-flung out­posts. Gui­tars first appeared in the cat­a­log in 1894 for $4.50 (around $112 in today’s mon­ey). By 1908 Sears was offer­ing a gui­tar, out­fit­ted for steel strings, for $1.89 ($45 today), mak­ing it the cheap­est har­mo­ny-gen­er­at­ing instru­ment avail­able. 

Qual­i­ty improved, prices went down, and blues­men could get their instru­ments by mail. Most of the big names we asso­ciate with the Delta blues bought a gui­tar from the Sears Cat­a­log. Gui­tars became such a pop­u­lar item that Sears intro­duced their own brand, under the exist­ing Sil­ver­tone line, in the 1930s. Lat­er bud­get gui­tars and ampli­fiers sold through Sears includ­ed Dan­elec­tro, Val­co, Har­mo­ny, Kay, and Teis­co (all of whom, at one time or anoth­er, made Sil­ver­tones).

These brands are now known to musi­cians as clas­sic roots and garage rock instru­ments played by the likes of Jack White, but their his­to­ries all come togeth­er with Sears (you may hear them lumped togeth­er some­times as “the Sears gui­tars”). The com­pa­ny first sup­plied blues­men and coun­try pick­ers with acoustic gui­tars, but “once the sound of the elec­tric gui­tar became that of Amer­i­can music,” Whet Moser writes at Chica­go Mag­a­zine, “teens in garages all over start­ed pick­ing up axes, and Sears was there to sup­ply them.”

Through their busi­ness deal with Nathan Daniel, they man­u­fac­tured the “amp-in-case” line of Dan­elec­tro Masonite gui­tars, sold in stores and cat­a­logs. These funky 50s instru­ments, designed for max­i­mum cost-cut­ting, incor­po­rat­ed sur­plus lip­stick tubes as hous­ing for their pick­ups. They made such a dis­tinc­tive jan­g­ly sound, thanks to the way Daniel wired them, that it became a hall­mark of 50s and 60s garage rock. Often sold under the Sil­ver­tone name as well, Dan­elec­tro gui­tars were cheap, but well designed. (Jim­my Page has had a par­tic­u­lar fond­ness for the Dan­elec­tro 59).

While the prod­uct his­to­ry of Sears elec­tric gui­tars is incred­i­bly com­pli­cat­ed, with brand names, designs, and prod­uct lines shift­ing from year to year, it’s enough to say that with­out their bud­get gui­tars and amps, many of the strug­gling musi­cians who inno­vat­ed the blues and rock and roll would have been unable to afford their instru­ments. The sto­ry of Sears writ large can be told as the sto­ry of a mar­ket “dis­rup­tor” rais­ing stan­dards of liv­ing for mil­lions of rur­al and urban Amer­i­cans. The company’s inno­v­a­tive mar­ket­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion schemes were also total­ly cen­tral to the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music.

via @TedGioia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the First Record­ed Blues Song by an African Amer­i­can Singer: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” (1920)

His­to­ry of Rock: New MOOC Presents the Music of Elvis, Dylan, Bea­t­les, Stones, Hen­drix & More

A Brief His­to­ry of Gui­tar Dis­tor­tion: From Ear­ly Exper­i­ments to Hap­py Acci­dents to Clas­sic Effects Ped­als

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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