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Nancy Koehn on BPR

The Rise And Fall Of A Household Name

Sears Chapter 11
A sign for a Sears department is displayed in Hackensack, N.J., Monday, Oct. 15, 2018. Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Monday, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses.
Seth Wenig/AP
Nancy Koehn on BPR

For over 130 years, Sears has been more than a source for household appliances — it’s a household name. Now the chain, founded in 1886, has declared bankruptcy and plans to close nearly 200 stores across the country. Harvard historian Nancy Koehn joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to unpack how a brand that seemed to hold a lifetime warranty is closing up shop after more than a century.

“The Sears catalog was a symbol of the rise of American consumption, not just in what you got in the general store,” Koehn said, “but of a whole wealth, a plethora of other goods.”

“The telegraph and railroads brought time zones [to America] and Richard Sears was a railroad operator, he starts selling watches,” Koehn continued, “Then he meets up with a man named Alvah Roebuck, and they start a more general retail business, and then they gradually become a catalog mail-order business.

According to Koehn, Sears was so successful partly because of a fortunate confluence of factors: the rise of the postal service, a railroad that enabled mass-production and a telegraph to connect everything together. “So what is born is really the mail-order business and the launch of this incredibly important catalog that by 1897 has 780 pages of merchandise in the tiniest type you’ve ever seen,” Keohn said, “from grindstones to canned peas to corsets.”

Nancy Koehn holds the James E. Robison Chair of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Her latest book is "Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times."

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