Sears filed for bankruptcy late in 2018, bringing an eventual end to a retail and catalog juggernaut that lasted for well over a century. Sears had such a huge customer base that it could sell just about anything.
Decades before every mall (often anchored by a Sears) featured a chain optician service, Americans had to seek out their eyeglasses from expensive eye doctors…or wait until a traveling optician knocked on their door. In the early 20th century, door-to-door glasses salesmen were a thing, emboldened by a kit sold in the Sears Roebuck catalog that offered a “complete opticians’ outfit” full of tools and lenses for the price of $27.85 (about $800 in today’s money). Fledgling eye doctors didn’t have to have a license or anything…merely a kit like the one they could send away for from Sears.
After industrialists Henry J. Kaiser and Joseph W. Frazer’s line of relatively cheap ($1,300) bare-bones Kaiser-Frazer cars flopped in 1950, the guys made a deal to sell them at Sears under the store’s house brand name of Allstate, which it used to sell auto parts. The two-door sedans came with a plaid interior, an airplane-shaped hood ornament…and a low-power engine, a trunk accessible only from the inside, rear windows that didn’t roll down, and no armrests or glove box. Individual Sears stores were skeptical and few displayed the cars, leaving interested customers to buy one from a catalog, sight unseen. Over 1952 and 1953, the only years the Sears Allstate was available, only 2,300 sold.
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In its 1970 catalog, Sears offered budding kid scientists the chance to work with real, embalmed animal specimens. For the low, low price of just two dollars, kids could send away for a package of three “biological specimens packed in odorless, colorless, harmless, non-toxic fluids.”
Long before IKEA popularized the idea of inexpensive, build-it-yourself furniture that came unassembled in flat cardboard boxes, Sears sold entire houses in that fashion. Sears Modern Homes arrived via a train boxcar full of pre-cut lumber, pipes, roof tiles and more, and offered heating, indoor plumbing, and electrical wiring, too. Between 1908 and 1940, Sears sold more than 70,000 of these DIY houses in more than 300 styles.