Summary of “Sears’s ‘radical’ past: How mail-order catalogues subverted the racial hierarchy of Jim Crow”

A lesser-known aspect of Sears’s 125-year history is how the company revolutionized rural black Southerners’ shopping patterns in the late 19th century, subverting racial hierarchies by allowing them to make purchases by mail or over the phone and avoid the blatant racism that they faced at small country stores.
While country stores were one of the few places where whites and blacks routinely mingled, store owners fiercely defended the white-supremacist order by making black customers wait until every white customer had been served and forcing them to buy lower-quality goods.
“A black man who needed clothing received a shirt ‘good enough for a darky to wear’ while a black family low on provisions could have only the lowest grade of flour,” historian Grace Elizabeth Hale wrote in an essay published in “Jumpin’ Jim Crow.: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights.”
There isn’t enough data available to determine exactly how much black customers contributed to Sears’s bottom line during the Jim Crow years.
Still, Southern merchants clearly felt threatened by the competition from mail-order department stores: As catalogues for Sears and Montgomery Ward made their way into more and more homes, local storekeepers began circulating rumors that the companies were run by black men.
By the turn of the century, some merchants were even encouraging people to bring in their catalogues for Saturday night bonfires and offering bounties of up to $50 for people who collected the most “Wish Books,” historians Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen wrote in “Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness.” In response, Sears published photos of its founders to prove that they were white, while Ward offered a $100 reward in exchange for the name of the person who had started a rumor that he had mixed black and white ancestry.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, the company followed Jim Crow laws in its Atlanta department store, Bitter Southerner noted, meaning that black employees could work only in warehouse, janitorial and food service positions.
For a significant portion of U.S. history, the Sears catalogue offered black shoppers something that they couldn’t find anywhere else: dignity.

The orginal article.