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Allstate, appliances, and arsenic: 5 things you didn’t know about Sears

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Anyone old enough to remember the reign of Sears (SHLDQ) in the ‘80s will feel a flicker of sadness as the company shutters its last store in Illinois, its home state. Sears confirmed in an interview with CNBC that its Woodfield Mall location’s final day will be Nov. 14. Just over two dozen of the chain’s stores remain open today since it filed for bankruptcy in 2018 (with seven already scheduled for closure).

While it’s always a shame to see a historic brand fall, the story of Sears remains a long and fascinating one. From its founding as Sears Roebuck & Co. (originally a watch company) in 1893 to the famous catalog that brought us Toughskins “Husky” jeans and awkward Portrait Studio photoshoots, the company made a major impact on the American retail industry. Here are a few things about Sears you may have missed out on during its 128-year journey.

Cover of a Sears Roebuck & Co. Consumer's Guide, Fall 1897.
Cover of a Sears Roebuck & Co. Consumer's Guide, Fall 1897 (Via Getty Images)

It changed the lives of those living in rural areas

It’s no problem finding basic household goods if you live in a small town today thanks to Walmart. That was not the case in 1896, where coffee or baking powder were just a few examples of items rural shoppers couldn’t find. Then Sears’ catalog came along, opening a whole new market for these customers. “​​It educated millions of shoppers about mail-order procedures, such as shipping, cash payment, substitutions, and returns,” wrote Vicki Howard, author of "Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store," in a 2017 Smithsonian magazine article. 

It helped define ISPs with Prodigy

Founded in 1984, Prodigy was a dial-up service that offered everything from news and weather to email and message boards. It went on to become the prototype for the online content portals that we use today. What many don’t know is that Prodigy was a $600 million joint venture between IBM, CBS, and Sears that was once the second-largest online service provider in the world. It was eventually sold to SBC in 2000 and rolled into the brand when SBC purchased AT&T.

Buying car insurance was made simple thanks to Sears (Via Getty Images)
Buying car insurance was made simple thanks to Sears (Via Getty Images)

It created an insurance giant

In 1931 Sears added car insurance to its massive selection of things for sale. It went by the name the company borrowed from one of its tire lines: Allstate. Sears went on to sell life and health insurance under this umbrella, as well. It retained full ownership of the brand until 1993, when Allstate went public. By 1995 Sears had divested its remaining 80% stake in the insurer. Today, it’s one of the largest insurers in the U.S.

A Sears Catalog ad for
A Sears Catalog ad for "The Barrington" model kit home, purchased by Mary Beth and Joe Turek in 1982. (CNuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

It sold houses for more than 32 years

The Sears “Modern Homes” catalog ran for 32 years (from 1908 to 1940) and offered customers the option to purchase premade homes or request custom ones. With pricing starting at $782, more than 100,000 homes were sold before the program was shuttered. Many still stand today and are shared in Facebook groups dedicated to both owners and fans of the homes.

Laudanum in the 1905 Sears catalog
Laudanum in the 1905 Sears catalog (Via Mike Mozart on Flickr)

It also sold products containing opium, arsenic, and heroin

“It is the policy of our house to supply the consumer everything on which we can save him money,” the Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog declared on the opening page of its 1897 edition. That included opium, which was a legal ingredient in many medicines of the time. In his book Ten Drugs: How Plants, Powders, and Pills Shaped the Future of Medicine, author Thomas Hager says the famed catalog also offered Bayer-branded Heroin for $1.50, which came with a syringe and two needles in a carrying case. Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers were also on sale, which the catalog advised could clear up any skin problems with a “Wizard’s Touch.”

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