The Giant Behind Sears

                                 Julius Rosenwald



Before the internet, before television, even before radio, families throughout America spent long winter nights fantasizing over their Wish Books.





By Megan McKinney



The vast American mail order catalog industry was born in Chicago, where it was headquartered for decades, fulfilling the needs and the desires of families on farms and in small towns throughout the nation.

The first major catalog was established in 1872 by traveling salesman Aaron Montgomery Ward, who, while journeying through the American countryside, observed the keen desire of rural customers for quality “city” goods at prices they could afford.  


Aaron Montgomery Ward, another great Chicago philanthropist—in a completely different way.   


But this is the Julius Rosenwald story. And the story of “Sears Roebuck,” which began in 1885 with Richard Warren Sears, an ambitious local railroad stationmaster in North Redwood Falls, Minnesota. When a COD shipment of watches was refused by a jewelry company that year, Sears bought the lot. The brash 22-year-old, who according to a contemporary “could sell a breath of air,” paid $12 each for the watches and sold them for $14 apiece to fellow station agents, who could then resell them at a profit.


 Richard Warren Sears.


After repeating the process with additional shipments and clearing almost $5,000, Sears moved on to Minneapolis, where he joined forces with watch repairman Alvah Curtis Roebuck. By 1893, the two men were partners in Sears, Roebuck and Company, a catalog business headquartered in Chicago.


 Alvah Curtis Roebuck.


Richard Sears, although a brilliant marketing genius, was a dismally disorganized businessman whose scintillating catalog copy was often so effective that it produced orders too massive to be filled. When 5,000 requests poured in for a cheap men’s suit, the swamped Sears searched for a manufacturer of cheap suits. And, in a life-changing connection, he found such a manufacturer in Julius Rosenwald, who not only provided the suits but would also transform the company—as well as his own future and that of Richard Sears.


 Julius Rosenwald.


Alvah Roebuck, meanwhile, had become exhausted by the workaholic habits of the frenetic Sears at a time when the company was also in need of an infusion of new capital. Thus, by 1895, Roebuck was out of the business and Rosenwald—universally known as JR—was in, with a $37,500 investment, which gave him a quarter interest in the company. Moreover, he had arrived just in time to address the catalog firm’s major underlying problem: inefficient follow-up to superb marketing. With JR, whose talent for organization equaled Richard Sears’ gift for generating sales, the company prospered; however, by 1908, a basic tension between the two had grown so strong that Sears retired from the business and JR became president, with an ally, Albert Loeb, as vice president. 


 By 1910, the mammoth Sears plant stretched across 40 acres of a residential area on Chicago’s West Side.


Albert Loeb was a fine partner; however, his life was interrupted by horrific personal tragedy. In May 1924, Loeb’s son, Richard “Dickie” Loeb, collaborated with his lover, Nathan Leopold, in the appalling kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, which quickly made him far better known than his father.


Dickie Loeb and Nathan Leopold murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks for “the thrill of it.”


The Leopold and Loeb “crime of the century” inspired Meyer Levin’s best-selling book Compulsion and the film of the same name, as well as the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rope.

The crime horrified the nation at large, but none were more shocked than members of the tightly knit wealthy and prominent South Side German Jewish families to which all of the principals belonged. Dickie Loeb, with his brilliant academic record and seemingly impeccable behavior, was such a paragon that he had been cited as a model after whom JR’s two youngest children, Marion and William, were to pattern themselves. The stunned and heartbroken Albert Loeb died six months after his son’s arrest.   


Farley Granger and John Dall were the murdering pair in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.


Julius Rosenwald succeeded Marshall Field as the richest man in Chicago and the fifth wealthiest Chicagoan of all time. JR was not only a giant in the mail order business but also a towering presence in American philanthropy. The Rosenwald philosophy was to give money while still alive. And he did. In all, he gave away $63 million, creating the Rosenwald Foundation with $30 million and contributing $5 million more to the University of Chicago. He was an important supporter of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and, between 1913 and 1932, JR built and donated money to operate more than 5,300 Rosenwald Schools for African-American children of the Jim Crow era South.


Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.


He also gave generously to the African-American YMCA, and his Rosenwald Fellowships benefited the development of such impressive figures as Nobel Prize-winning statesman Dr. Ralph Bunche, celebrated contralto Marian Anderson and Harlem Renaissance poet novelist, columnist, playwright and essayist Langston Hughes.


Dr. Ralph Bunche.

Marian Anderson.

Langston Hughes.


Rosenwald’s most tangible memorial is one of Chicago’s great educational amenities, the Museum of Science and Industry, for which he donated $3 million but declined to have carry his name. When we have the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, it is astonishing that the institution below is not known as the Rosenwald Museum of Science and Industry.



The seeds for founding such an institution were planted in JR’s mind as early as 1911 when he began taking his eight-year-old son William to the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. An avid fan of the innovative science museum, little William was fascinated with the hands-on, interactive aspects of the Munich facility and begged his father for repeated visits. It was an enthusiasm that impressed JR and stayed with him until 15 years later when the Museum of Science and Industry came into reality in the rebuilt Fine Arts Building from the Columbian Exposition.


Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series, The Rosenwalds, will continue next week with Julius Rosenwald at Home: JR, Gussie and Their Children.


Author Photo

Robert F. Carl