When Sears Was Everywhere: Espionage, Politics and Fine Art



As the country agonized over whether to join the fighting in Europe during World War II, a group of law students at Yale — including Gerald Ford, a future president; Potter Stewart, a future Supreme Court justice; and R. Sargent Shriver, a future director of the Peace Corps — formed a group called America First. The United States should stay neutral, the association believed, which quickly grew to more than 800,000 members nationwide.

Robert E. Wood, a general during World War I and the chairman of Sears when the group formed, became its chairman. In Senate testimony, he denied accusations that the group was in contact with Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for the Nazi Party. America First disbanded in 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor pushed the country into the war. In 1954, Mr. Wood was named co-chairman of another organization, called For America, which sought to fight “superinternationalism and interventionism.”

Civil Rights

Decades earlier, another Sears executive engaged in activism of a different sort. Julius Rosenwald began promoting civil rights causes while he was still president of Sears, before he became its chairman in 1924, leading some to call him the “first social justice philanthropist.” He helped fund fellowships for black artists and academics, including W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin. He worked with Booker T. Washington to open more than 5,300 schools for black children in the Jim Crow South. Some of them were burned down by the Ku Klux Klan.

Selling FINE Art

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The target Sears customer was the average American, not the uptown grande dame bedecked in pearls and furs.

But when the company opened an art gallery in 1966 in one of Chicago’s most upscale retail districts, featuring works by Chagall, Picasso and Miró, both kinds of customer showed up. On the first day, 100 pieces sold, including a $30,000 Andrew Wyeth oil painting. The unlikely venture was an extension of a program started in 1962 and run by the actor Vincent Price, known for his roles in horror films. But Mr. Price was also a well-known art collector who counted his partnership with Sears among his proudest contributions to American culture. Sears sold more than 50,000 pieces of fine art by 1971, when it ended the program. Since then, other mass market retailers, like Costco, have explored similar offerings.




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