There’s a big hole in the ground in Salt Lake City-you know the one, on the west side of State Street between 700 and 800 South. The ‘Sears Pit’ will be transformed in the near future from a huge block that’s now a pool of water and mud to a new hospital for Intermountain Health Care. So many of us old farts have many memories of Sears, Roebuck and Company that it was hard to see the diggers and dozers pull down the building this winter.
Richard Sears was a railroad station agent in Minnesota who came up with an idea in 1886 to sell modestly priced watches that no jeweler wanted to offer, and did it through mail order. Soon he partnered up with a friend, Alvah Roebuck and then a clothing merchant (Julius Rosenwald) to create a mail order firm that penetrated rural areas who didn’t have department stores but could be reached through railroad and mail delivery. Their original catalogues sold buggies to bicycles, sewing machines and fishing poles, clothes and shoes and of course, watches. They literally had to train Americans on how to ‘catalogue’ shop with mail order protocols for payments and returns. Many credit Sears as the company that taught Americans how to shop! The Sears and later Craftsman line of products became a high standard of reasonably priced items and the annual catalogue was treasured by every kid in America who was able to look at pictures of the newest bikes, trikes, dolls and banjos and could circle the ad to let Santa what they wanted for Christmas and birthdays.
From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold 70,000 – 75,000 homes through their mail-order catalogue “Modern Homes” program. Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vacationers. (An outhouse could be purchased separately for Goldenrod and similar cottage dwellers.) Customers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets. Sears was not an innovative home designer but instead a very able follower of popular home designs but with the added advantage of modifying houses and hardware according to buyer tastes. Individuals could even design their own homes and submit the blueprints to Sears, which would then ship off the appropriate precut and fitted materials, putting the home owner in full creative control. Modern Home customers had the freedom to build their own dream houses, and Sears helped realize these dreams through quality custom design and favorable financing.
The Salt Lake City store was built in 1947, a big box looking thing of Mid-Mod design. Sears lost a lot of customers to new competitors in the 1970’s, like Target, Kmart and Walmart. It was eventually bought out by Kmart in 2005 for $12 billion. They filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 2018 and this store closed in 2018.