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① Merchandise Building, ② Tower, ③ West Wings of Merchandise Building, ④ Administration Building, ⑤ Advertising & Printing Building, ⑥ Grocery Annex, ⑦ Paint Factory, ⑧ Wall Paper Mill, ⑨ Factory No. 1, ⑩ Power Plant.
Catalogues and Counters, Boris Emmett and John E. Jeuck, 1950
On September 16, 1893, “A. C. Roebuck, Inc.,” was changed to “Sears, Roebuck and Company” through an amendment in the articles of incorporation, the only change being the name.
The new title—one that was to withstand Sears’ capacity for juggling nomenclature—also resulted in a new catalogue of 196 pages. In addition to watches, jewelry, and sewing machines, it listed furniture, dishes, clothing (a single page), harness, saddles, firearms (now up to 7 pages), wagons, buggies, bicycles, shoes, baby carriages, and musical instruments. The company was moving from narrow specialization to mail order on broader merchandise base.
LEFT: Typical Sears, Roebuck and Company advertisements in periodicals which ran from 1893-1906.
RIGHT: Front Cover of the Sears, Roebuck and Company 6″ x 9″ 1894 Catalogue.
In the early 1890’s Sears made a contract with Charles C. Spangler, who operated a type composition plant in Chicago, to set up Richard Sears’ ads, and another with W. B. Conkey, of Hammond, Indiana, to set up the pages and print and bind the book. It was in no way a happy arrangement. It is said that there was one period of rebellion by Sears, Roebuck when it rejected and returned three-quarters of the several carloads of one particular issue of the catalogue delivered by Conkey.1
In a letter from Richard Sears to Asher, January 30, 1892:
I endeavored to impress Conkey and the importance of our having as near 10,000 per day of these catalogues as possible and I believe I made him understand and believe that subsequently and for future seasons, if necessary at least for a year or two, that we could cut down our editions to a comparatively small number where it would not overtax his manufacturing capacity on the perfecting (print both sides at same time) machines, and I fancy I could see at once that Mr. Conkey would be very much disappointed if he did not get additional work from us which to run his flat machines, and I candidly believe if we change places with him somewhat as to dictatorship that he would be very glad to have the opportunity to run his flat presses to make us an excess number of catalogues and this without any excess charge or bonus.
In 1903, apparently at the expiration of the printing contract with Conkey and Spangler, the company established its own printing plant called the Metropolitan Press Syndicate. It was located in Chicago, and its equipment consisted largely of a number of old Cotrell presses and a binder bought from Conkey. Further, Sears, Roebuck added insult to injury by hiring Conkey’s superintendent to run its plant.2
Cottrell Perfecting Press
The company’s new printing establishment was moved to new quarters on Chicago’s West Side in 1906, when the company moved into its new building. To replace their Cottrell rotary presses, which delivered thirty-two page sections (“signatures”) in multiples of eight, Metropolitan acquired new and larger presses able to deliver ninety-six page sections in multiples of twenty-four pages. A new binding machine was also acquired at the same time.
Sometime between 1903 and 1908 Sears, Roebuck also purchased several linotype machines on a tentative basis. Linotypes had been used since 1888, but Sears had never utilized them for type-casting catalogue copy. It was agreed that if the linotypes did not work out satisfactorily, in one year, the firm could return them to the Mergenthaler Company at no expense. Before the probation period ended, Sears, Roebuck ordered more such machines. They speeded catalogue production immensely.
The next technical improvement came with the purchase of presses for turning out four-color printing. These presses posed a greater problem in inks, which in turn created further paper difficulties. It was necessary to evolve inks which would dry rapidly enough and well enough so that one color could be printed on top of another without skidding, smearing, or pricking the paper. A special research activity, attached to the advertising department, developed satisfactory inks and went on to find paper which would accommodate the inks properly.
The paper problem, however, went far beyond the mere difficulty posed by the inks. Paper represented weight, and weight represented catalogue mailing cost; a reduction of even a few ounces in the weight of each book spelled annual savings in postage amounting to thousands of dollars. Early efforts had been made to reduce the weight, chiefly by close trimming; this had reached the reductio ad absurdum stage when, after 1900, the trimming was frequently so close that the type near the margins was shaved off. Economy was proving too expensive until the company’s researchers came up with paper light enough to cut mailing costs while still being sufficiently sturdy for high-speed printing.
In addition to pioneering in the realm of ink and paper—which advances were made that were subsequently adopted by most of the rest of the industry—the special research department also made improvements in type metals, electroplating, illustrating, presswork, and related fields. Most of these improvements came after 1908; but the groundwork had been laid by that time.
By 1905 woodcuts still furnished about 60 per cent of all catalogue illustrations. Halftones were used practically all the wearing apparel, clothing, shoes, and haberdashery, and to a large extent for other goods where detail was an important factor in sales appeal. Black-and-white wash drawings were first employed for making halftones, but these gave way in time to photographs.
Sears Printing Presses in the Printing and Advertising Building.
Sometime shortly after 1906 an electroplating foundry was established to take care of advertisements, with an initial appropriation of $10,000. Its uses burgeoned until by 1910 it had become the largest in Chicago. Sears, Roebuck was, however, already was finding out that there were great difficulties inherent in operating a printing plant devoted almost solely to such a seasonal project as catalogues. As a catalogue deadline neared, the plant was badly overloaded; this period was followed by a slack time in which it was impossible to keep the plant busy. Meanwhile, though, problems or no, catalogues continued to roll by the millions every year. And they reaped a harvest of orders.
Julius Rosenwald, struggling with the problems that developed out of the 1920-21 depression, was casting about to cut expenses at every opportunity. The possibility of eliminating the overhead expenses of the firm’s own printing establishment was appealing. Despite the growth in catalogue circulation and the number of special books produced each year, there were inevitably slack periods for a press catering only to Sears, Roebuck’s demands. Accordingly, the company abandoned manufacturing its own catalogue in 1923 when a contract was negotiated with John F. Cuneo of Chicago’s Cuneo Press.
The R. R. Donnelley Lakeside Press which started construction in 1917, but wasn’t completed till 1929, at the same time Sears awarded Donnelley to print The Big Book.
Cuneo manufactured the bulk of Sears’ catalogues for the next few years, although the W. F. Hall Printing Company also produced a substantial part of the mail-order firm’s catalogue volumes. Since 1928 the catalogues have been printed and bound mainly by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company. Hall continues to share the task. Donnelley’s facilities proved adequate to handle not only Sears, Roebuck’s “Big Book,” but Montgomery Ward’s as well.2
Inter Ocean, November 7, 1910
Sears, Roebuck and Company, Fall 1905 Catalogue
This building, about 50 feet to the south of the Administration Building, is given up in its entirety to the printing of our catalogues, big and small, and to the printing of the stationery used in our business. This building, constructed especially for our purpose, is 90 feet wide, 250 feet long and four stories high, and makes the most modern and model printing plant possible. With perfect light, everything built to our own measure and requirements, railroad tracks to carry the paper leading direct to the printing presses, we look for greater economy. This building is built to contain twenty special Cottrell rotary perfecting catalogue printing presses, each made to order, made specially to make our big catalogues. Add to this a large number of large, medium, and small flat bed, rotary and other printing presses, plate making machines, binding, covering, gathering, trimming and other machinery and equipment, and you can for some idea of the extensiveness of plans necessary to take care of the printing branch of our business. All the printing done in this building will be exclusively for our requirements. Our own printing plant is another economy that makes for lower prices.
Sears 1907 Fall Catalogue
Sears Advertising Building
BUILDING TO HANDLE OUR ADVERTISING MATTER.
This building, just west of the printing plant, will be about 90 feet wide, 160 feet long and four stories high, built expressly for the purpose, to suit our requirements in every way, and will be devoted in its entirety to the compiling, composing (typesetting) and mailing of our catalogues, circulars and price lists of all kinds. In this building we will have a large photographic department for the making of cuts and engravings of all descriptions. Here, expect to send out as high as missing tons of printed matter daily, consisting of large catalogues, specialty catalogues, entry tickets (bills), order forms, ink, pens, pencils, etc., which are used by our various clerical merchandise departments.
The Printing Building became the Merchandise and Laboratory (M&L) Building in 1959 till its closing in 1990. The building also housed the Sears Testing Labs, Store Displays and the Sears Photography Studio (SPS).
The Sears in-house photography studio provided most of the art needed for Sears Catalog and Retail advertising throughout the 1930s and 1950s until the services were farmed out to outside studios in the 1960s.
Photomethods Magazine, June, 1986
TOP: Floor Plan of the Sears Photo Studio after its remodeling in 1986.
BOTTOM: Original transparency given to Photomethods Magazine of the Main Gallery, along with copy from Sears Studio promotional brochure.
Chicago Tribune, November 9, 1988
Sears, Roebuck and Co. plans to close its photographic studio on the West Side by the end of this year, aq move that will affect 32 employees.
Sears spokeswoman Kathy Gucfa said the move is part of the company’s restructuring of the company’s Merchandise Group that dates to late February, under which a “few hundred” positions have been eliminated through a voluntary severance-incentive program.
She said the studio closing was not triggered by the corporate revamping and shift in merchandise strategy disclosed last week by Sears.
Employees at the photo studio, at 3301 W. Arthington St. and part of the large West Side complex, were told Monday that the studio will be closed.
Gucfa said the company will seek to find other positions forn or offer voluntary severance incentives to 32 photographers and photo print processing employees. The severance package includes a payment equal to two weeks’ salary for each year of employee service at Sears and some extension of medical benefits.
Another 10 studio employees all in the slide department, will be retained by the company, she said.
Sears has maintained a full-sized studio at the West Side complex since the 1930s. The studio produces photos for in-store display and other promotions.
Sears is expected to use outside studios and freelance photographers after the studio is closed.3
Chicago-based Sears said last week that it plans to sell its Sears Tower headquarters in the West Loop and to relocate about 8,000 employees to an as-yet-undetermined location. There has been some speculation that the employees would be moved to the West Side complex.
The Merchandise Group also plans to shift to an “everyday low pricing” strategy and to increase its offering of national brand-name items in an effort to better compete with discounters and specialty stores.
Chicago Tribune, June 23, 2017
By Corilyn Shropshire
A national nonprofithousing developer is aiming to bring new life into a North Lawndale community plagued by poverty and crime by transforming the former Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s catalog printing facility into 181 loft-style affordable apartments.
Mercy Housing Lakefront’s $65 million project renovated the stately building near Spaulding Avenue and Arthington Street that has stood nearly vacant since Sears moved out more than 40 years ago. The units include 66 apartments set aside for Chicago Housing Authority residents, and the rest will be income-restricted. For instance, an individual can have annual income of no more than $33,180 to be eligible, while a family of four can have household income of no more than $47,400.
Already 45 percent occupied, Mercy is hoping the rehabbed building, dubbed Lofts on Arthington, gives a boost to the neighborhood, which has seen other recent investment. Last year, Shaw Co.’s Homan Square VI was completed — 52 mixed-income apartments in four multiunit buildings.
With 16 to 18-foot ceilings and bright, large windows, the airy lofts resemble units leasing for three times as much in the River West and West Loop neighborhoods, except the flooring is faux wood instead of hardwood and the countertops are less-expensive laminate instead of granite.
Amenities include a laundry facility on each of the building’s six floors, an outdoor community area, a gym and a computer room. Residents will have access to on-site programs such as job training, neonatal health care and pre-K education.
Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s Former Catalog Printing Building.
There’s even a nod to the glory days of Sears in the front lobby, which has been restored to look as it did in the company’s Homan Square heyday, with marble baseboards, the original clay floors and restored elevator doors. The old building directory hangs on the west wall.
Built between 1905 and 1907, Sears’ headquarters campus and mail order plant included four buildings, a park with a pergola and its own power plant. A year after its opening, the campus was bustling with more than 9,200 employees. When the company moved to the Sears Tower in 1973, most of the facility was vacated.
In 2004, the Homan Square Foundation, which previously operated as the Homan Arthington Foundation, sold the complex of buildings to the Royal Imperial Group, which planned a 1,200-unit residential development of entry-level condos. The housing crash upended those plans.
In 2014, the property was sold to Mercy working with the Royal Bank of Canada, with Royal Imperial retaining a small stake. With Chicago-based architectural firm Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Mercy began working up plans to rehab the building into a safe, affordable apartment building that would “provide a stable, sound home,” said Mark Angelini, president of Mercy Housing Lakefront.
Mercy is the developer behind several Chicago affordable-housing properties, including the Pullman Wheelworks, which includes 210 units for low- to moderate-income families.
1 Mail Order Journal, January, 1901—Sears, Roebuck and Company of Chicago are at present the largest mail order advertisers…the January issue of Comfort contained 70 different ads of Sears, Roebuck and Co. More than 75% of of the ads were therefore from Sears, Roebuck and Company…In other mail order publications, Sears, Roebuck and Company are using even larger space.
2Chicago Tribune, December 22, 1903—Metropolitan Press of Chicago, Chicago; capital, $2,500; printing, binding, and book manufacturing; incorporators, Newton Wyeth, L. Verhoeven, and Isaac A. Loeb.
Chicago Tribune, October 6, 1903—Metropolitan Press of Chicago; named Changed to Metropolitan Syndicate Press; capital increased from $2,500 to $50,000; number of directors from thee to four.
2William Franklin Hall, an Indiana native who worked as a journeyman printer in Chicago during the 1880s, founded his own printing company in April, 1893 when he changed the name of the Van Sicklen Printing Company to W. F. Hall Printing Co. By 1910, Hall’s company employed about 400 people at its plant on Superior Street. During the 1920s, with about 2,000 workers, Hall was one of the world’s leading printers of magazines and catalogs. Hall continued to prosper during the next few decades. By the 1970s, it was still a leading U.S. printer, with about 5,000 employees in the Chicago area and over $100 million in annual revenues. In the 1980s, after it was purchased by the Krueger Co. of Arizona and Ringier AG, a Swiss firm, Hall closed its main catalog plant on West Diversey Avenue and moved many of its printing operations to Tennessee and Mississippi.
3Chicago Tribune, November 25, 1988—Just over two weeks after Sears announced the closing of their in-house studio, Sears’ contracted studios were closing their doors as well. Due to the discontinuation of mail order catalogues such as Alden’s (1983)Montgomery Ward (1985), large photography studios were losing money. Kransten Studio laid off 165 of 200 employees. Bruce Benton, of Grignon Studios, filed for Chapter 11 protection on November 1, but he recently formed another photography firm, Omni/Grafx, with a staff of 20. Modeling agencies as well have been hit hard financially with the shortage.