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Working for Slave Wages

The Sears Roebuck catalog has been described as “a mirror of our times, recording for future historians the desires, habits, customs, and mode of living.” In 1888 Richard Sears sold watches and jewelry. When he sent out his first printed mailer, it was the start of something that would grow to the size of a large book. Its arrival in American mailboxes was eagerly anticipated. It was said that some Americans thought the catalog was second only to the Bible as the book people most wanted in the home.

Westward expansion meant that Americans were stretched across the country, many of them far from cities and towns. The Sears catalog meant access for everyone to consumer goods. The catalog had expanded from watches and jewelry to include sewing machines, sporting goods, saddles, firearms, bicycles, and baby carriages. Eventually a customer could even purchase a kit for a house!

But not everyone held Sears in such high esteem. On this date in 1913, the Hope Pioneer published a letter about the Sears Roebuck catalog that arrived “like Poe’s Raven – uninvited and unsolicited.” The author noted that Sears earned $7 million in 1912. That was impressive by the standards of the day, but the writer said it came at the expense of underpaid employees, most of them women. According to the letter, these women and girls lived on starvation wages. If they complained, they were told to use their evening hours to get a second job.

The chairman of the Senate committee on white slavery noted that some girls worked ten hours a day to earn $1.50 a week. This meant their annual income was $78. By way of comparison, clothing makers made $669 per year. One economist wrote, "Twenty-five years ago one could live in the United States as comfortably on $500 a year as he can now on $1,200.” By either standard, the girls working at Sears fell far behind.

Some states passed minimum wage laws in 1912, but a Federal minimum wage wouldn’t come until 1933. It continues to be a topic of discussion today. Some states have passed a minimum wage that is higher than the Federal. And there’s much talk about a $15 minimum wage, which would surely have astounded the girls at Sears in 1912.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher     


Sears. “Archives.” http://www.searsarchives.com/catalogs/history.htm  Accessed 7 April 2019.

Hope Pioneer. “The following article…” Hope ND. 15 May 1913. Page 4.

A Hundred Years Ago. “Average Salaries.” https://ahundredyearsago.com/2012/09/17/average-salaries-1912-and-2012/  Accessed 7 April 2019.

Ohio State University. “Cost of Living Discussions.” https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/1912/content/costof  Accessed 7 April 2019.

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