Thursday, March 28, 2013

Alvah C. Roebuck - Black English Parents - Sears and Roebuck Never Say

Alvah C. Roebuck asked Richard W. Sears to buy out his interest in the company in 1895. Richard Sears asked Roebuck to remain with the company as a salaried employee to manage the Sears Home Entertainment Department. After four years Roebuck quit to form his own movie projector manufacturing company, with Sears becoming one of his best customers. In 1903, Roebuck worked on the first of many improvements to the motion picture machine, building the Optigraph Motion Picture Machine. Roebuck later returned to Sears in 1933 and worked for wages until 1940. During this time he wrote a history of Sears early days, and became a star attraction at Sears store openings. Roebuck passed away June 18, 1948, never publicly regretting the fortune he missed by not staying with Sears, Roebuck and Co

Alvah C. Roebuck (1864-1948)

Co-Founder "It was our constant desire to maintain our margin of superiority by means of improvements and new inventions." (1934)


Alvah Curtis Roebuck, co-founder of Sears, Roebuck and Co., was born on January 9, 1864, in Lafayette, Ind., of English parentage.

When Alvah was three years old, his family moved to a farm about five miles outside of Lafayette. It was there that Alvah attended country school, and his mother took over the family farm when her husband died in 1876.

At an early age, Alvah showed a great interest in mechanical things, and at 16 he was already a self-taught watchmaker. When he reached 22, Alvah secured a position in a small jewelry store in Hammond, Ind. The following year, impatient to get ahead and earn more money, he began scanning the help-wanted sections of Chicago newspapers.

On April 1, 1887, Roebuck answered an advertisement for a watchmaker in the Chicago Daily News, and two days later he received a reply—Richard W. Sears wanted to hire him. Thus began the association of two men who would soon form one of the world's best-known business partnerships. The firm was incorporated as Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1893.

In 1895, Roebuck asked Sears to buy him out. However, at Richard Sears' request, he took charge of a division that handled watches, jewelry, optical goods, and, later, phonographs, magic lanterns and motion picture machines. His business interests did not end with Sears. He later organized and financed two companies: a manufacturer and a distributor of motion picture machines and accessories. Roebuck also served as president (1909-1924) of Emerson Typewriter Company, where he invented an improved typewriter, called the "Woodstock."

After several years in semi-retirement in Florida, the financial losses he suffered in the stock market crash of 1929 forced Roebuck to return to Chicago. By 1933, Roebuck had rejoined Sears, Roebuck and Co., where he largely devoted his time to compiling a history of the company he helped found.

Then, in September of 1934, a Sears store manager asked Mr. Roebuck to make a public appearance at his store. After an enthusiastic public turnout, Mr. Roebuck went on tour, appearing at retail stores across the country for the next several years.

Alvah Roebuck returned to his desk at company headquarters in Chicago, where he enthusiastically assumed the task of compiling a corporate history until his death on June 18, 1948.

Company History:
With a network of more than 870 full-line department stores and 1,300 freestanding specialty stores in the United States and Canada, Sears, Roebuck and Co. is the world's fourth largest retailer. For more than a century Sears has provided consumers with top brand names synonymous with durability and quality. Craftsman tools, Kenmore appliances, Diehard car batteries, and WeatherBeater paint are a just a few of its most recognized products; Sears also provides a variety of competitively priced apparel for men, women, and children featuring its own brands (Canyon River Blues, Covington, TKS Basics) and such staples as Levi's jeans and Nike athleticwear. A newer addition to its empire came with catalogue and online retailer Lands' End, acquired in 2001.

Humble Beginnings: Late 1880s to 1914

Sears bears the name of Richard W. Sears, who was working as a North Redwood, Minnesota, freight agent for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad in 1886 when a local jeweler gave him an unwanted shipment of pocket watches rather than return them to the manufacturer. Sears sold them to agents down the line who then resold them at the retail level. He ordered and sold more watches and within six months made $5,000. He quit the railroad and founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company in Minneapolis.

Business expanded so quickly that Sears moved to Chicago in 1887 to be in a more convenient communications and shipping center. Soon customers began to bring in watches for repairs. Since he knew nothing about fixing them, Sears hired Alvah Roebuck, a watch repairman from Indiana, ALVAR CURTIS ROEBUCK - A BLACK BUSINESSMAN
in 1887. A shrewd and aggressive salesman--a colleague once said of him, "He could probably sell a breath of air"--Sears undersold his competition by buying up discontinued lines from manufacturers and passing on the discounts to customers. At various times from 1888 to 1891, thinking himself bored with the business, Sears sold out to Roebuck but came back each time.

In 1888 the company published the first of its famous mail-order catalogues. It was 80 pages long and advertised watches and jewelry. Within two years the catalogue grew to 322 pages, filled with clothes, jewelry, and such durable goods as sewing machines, bicycles, and even keyboard instruments. In 1894 the catalogue cover proclaimed Sears was the "Cheapest Supply House on Earth."

The company changed its name to its current form in 1893, but Alvah Roebuck, uncomfortable with his partner's financial gambles, sold out his share two years later and remained with the firm as a repairman. Sears promptly found two new partners to replace Roebuck: local entrepreneur Aaron Nusbaum and Nusbaum's brother-in-law, haberdasher Julius Rosenwald. The company recapitalized at $150,000, with each man taking a one-third stake. The company continued to prosper; when the cantankerous Nusbaum was forced to sell out in 1901 after clashing with Sears, his interest was worth $1.25 million.

There was little harmony between the two remaining partners, Rosenwald and Sears. Sears believed in continuous expansion and risk-taking; Rosenwald advocated consolidation and caution. Rosenwald also objected to his partner's fondness for the hard sell in the catalogue and advertising copy. Had the Federal Trade Commission existed then, some of the company's advertising practices probably would not have passed muster--but it should be mentioned that Richard Sears invented the unconditional money-back guarantee and stood by it.

In 1905 construction began on a new headquarters plant on Chicago's west side to consolidate all of the company's functions. To help raise the necessary capital, Sears went public in 1906. Yet Wall Street was leery of the incautious Richard Sears and he resigned as president in 1908 when it became clear he was obstructing the firm's progress. He was appointed chairman, but his heart was never in the job and he retired in 1913, never having presided over a board meeting. Sears died the following year at the age of 50. Near the end of his life, he summarized his career as a merchant: "Honesty is the best policy. I know, I've tried it both ways."

New Leadership and Growth: 1915 to the Late 1920s

Sears was now Julius Rosenwald's company to run and he did it with such skill and success he became one of the richest men in the world. Sales rose sixfold between 1908 and 1920, and in 1911 Sears began offering credit to its customers at a time when banks would not even consider lending to consumers. During this time the company grew to the point where its network of suppliers, combined with its own financing and distribution operations, constituted a full-fledged economic system in itself. Rosenwald's personal fortune allowed him to become a noted philanthropist--he gave away $63 million over the course of his life, much of it to Jewish causes and to improve the education of Southern blacks. As a result of the latter, he became a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute and a good friend of its founder, Booker T. Washington.

The depression of the early 1920s dealt Sears a sharp blow. In 1921 the company posted a loss of $16.4 million and omitted its quarterly dividend for the first time. Rosenwald responded by slashing executive salaries and even eliminated his own. He was also persuaded to donate 50,000 shares from his personal holdings to the company treasury to reduce outstanding capital stock and restore the firm's standing with its creditors. Sears thus weathered the crisis and benefited from the general prosperity that followed.

Was Roebuck was black?
At one of my classes a few weeks ago, while discussing the black experience in America, the instructor mentioned that "Roebuck (of sears Roebuck) was black." One student in the class said "That's right;" most of the responses ranged from thoughtful "Huh!" expressions to disbelief that they had never known this.

Curious to learn more about this supposedly forgotten historical figure, I Googled around a bit - none of the online biographies or Sears Co. histories mention Alvah Roebuck's ethnicity, nor does his picture look particularly African-American (not that one can always tell):

A few blogs/amateur history sites throw out the factoid, but never with any citations.

So, was Alvah Roebuck black, and deliberately forgotten as an important player in American business history? Could it be the people relating the story are using the same "one drop" principle that people used to call Warren G. Harding black? Or is the whole thing in error?

2 comments:

  1. His aunt was my great, great, grandmother, Susan Roebuck. Susan's older brother was Samuel, who married Mary Jane Wolff, father of Alvah. I haven't come across any pictures yet. Samuel's parents were George Roebuck and Catherine Ann Stophlet. I know nothing of the Wolff side, as that isn't part of my genealogy. I do not think there are any blacks on the Roebuck side of the family but who knows... But I doubt it.

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  2. As a black man I had heard of Mr.Roebuck being black,but only now did I google to find this information,I am pleased at what I have found,We as BLACKS are instrumental in building this great nation called AMERICA.

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