Did you ever think about how certain big stores got their start? Ever heard of the old Sears & Roebuck company? If not, you may enjoy this fun history tale from Andi’s point of view. Note: The original startup history is true, but Mrs. M took literary license and allowed Andi to see the catalog, which was not available until 1897, after Sears sold his original company and launched (with Roebuck) what became the Sears & Roebuck company.
Read more Andi’s Journal and Blasts from the Past entries in Andi’s Attic >>
Voting update: The votes are split right down the middle! 51% Annual; 49% Seasonal This is not helping me very much. LOL
Andi’s Journal, June 1889
Jared is going on two, and such a busy little boy he is too! Last Saturday, Justin and Lucy invited us for a fun supper. Just the two of us. Sammy was so glad to see Jared that he whisked him away into his small playroom, where they were quiet until we called them for supper. There was no answer.
When I walked in to find out what was going on, Sammy’s brown eyes were full of uncertainty. “Aunt Andi, I don’ know what to do. He found Daddy’s pocket watch and won’t give it back.”
I hurried over. To my horror, Jared was chewing on Justin’s watch. Not only that, it looked like Father’s watch, the one he’d passed down to Justin as the firstborn. Worse and worse! I picked Jared up. “Give me the watch, please.”
Jared hung on tighter. Apparently, that metal felt pretty good on the teeth that were coming in. But honestly! “Jared. Now.” I added action to my words and drew the pocket watch out of my naughty son’s drooling mouth.
“No-no-no!” he yelled, squirming.
I quickly handed Jared to Riley. I had bigger problems. What if the watch was water soaked and had stopped working? I sheepishly held it out to big brother. “I am so sorry, Justin.”
Justin took the watch, pulled out his handkerchief, and set to work. “Samuel,” he said, “why didn’t you come and tell me when you saw that Jared had found my watch?”
The little boy ducked his head. “I dunno. Sorry, Daddy.”
Justin wiped the watch down and held it to his ear. Then he let out a relieved breath. “I think it’s fine.” He looked closer and chuckled. “We’re in luck, Andi. This isn’t Father’s heirloom pocket watch. This is the one Mother bought me years ago so I wouldn’t have to carry around the special one from Father.”
Whoosh! A close call indeed! Later, it got me thinking back to the time when I was twelve and I borrowed Justin’s pocket watch (yes, the one Father had given him) when I took Levi, Betsy, and Hannah up to my special spot on an afternoon ride.
(From Family Secret, chapter 13). If these mini scenes are not familiar to you, it’s because they are not in the original (tan cover) book, but were added to the Anniversary Edition.
“All right,” Justin agreed. “It does look like the sun might win, after all. But don’t be gone long. Two hours should be plenty of time for what you want to do.” His look turned serious. “Be back on time, or I’ll send the entire ranch after you. You know what will happen then.”
Oh, yes. Andi knew. It was no fun to be dragged home like a stray calf just because she lost track of the time. “I don’t want Chad mad at me for disturbing everybody’s day off. We’ll be back with time to spare”—she grinned—“especially if you let me borrow your watch.” Justin handed over his pocket watch, which Andi stuffed into the pocket of her split skirt.
Then later, thanks to Levi, Father’s pocket watch was not left in a cabin in Andi’s riding skirt after she’d changed out of her wet clothes. (chapter 17)
Levi picked up the other blanket and ran to catch up. “When do you think we’ll get home?” A cough racked his body. “It’s seven o’clock right now.”
Andi whirled. “How on earth do you know—”
“I got a watch.” Levi held up Justin’s watch.
“Give that to me.” She let go of Hannah and swiped for the pocket watch.
Levi was too quick. He dodged Andi. “If it wasn’t for me, Uncle Justin’s watch would still be back at the cabin in your riding skirt.” He stuffed it in his pocket.
Andi deflated. Levi was right. Besides, she felt too lousy to wrestle him for it. “Fine, but you’d best take care of it.”
“Better than you!” He laughed.
After we got back to the ranch, the story got out how I’d nearly lost Father’s heirloom watch, which set Mother on a mission the following March. She brought me along, apparently because I was the catalyst for her idea.
March 1881, Fresno, California
“I’m not going back to San Francisco right now, am I?” I asked in horror as Mother and I walked into the railroad depot. I’d only been home a few days on a quick holiday for Justin’s birthday celebration. I’d be back at Miss Whitaker’s soon enough. I wondered if Jenny was missing me yet.
“No,” Mother replied with a chuckle. “We are here to buy Justin a new pocket watch.”
I wrinkled my eyebrows. “Justin already has a nice pocket watch. You know, the one Father passed down to him.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “The one you and Levi carried through the rangeland and nearly lost last November.” She paused. “I thought it would be nice to find Justin an everyday watch, one he doesn’t have to worry about ruining.”
I thought this was a swell idea. “Then why aren’t we at the jewelry store or Goodwins?” That’s where folks bought good, decent watches. Not at a railroad depot.
“I could,” Mother said, “but I want to find a watch that is a little less expensive than I would find at Youngs, and of better quality than those I can buy at the mercantile.”
“And the railroad company is selling pocket watches?” I knew they sold railway tickets, and I knew they even sold candy and peanuts on board the railroad cars, but watches?
“The railroad company isn’t selling the watches, not at all,” Mother explained with a smile. “Mr. Owens, the telegraph operator, is.”
This confused me even more. Mr. Owens worked for the Central Pacific Railroad, right in an office at the railroad depot. It made sense. The telegraph wires followed the railroad tracks from town to town. It was usually the shortest distance to get where you wanted to go, and the railroad already had the right-of-way for the railroad. I liked to count the telegraph poles when we took the train to San Francisco to visit Aunt Rebecca.
Mother explained that most of the station agents (who worked for the railroad) were also skilled telegraph operators. That’s how they communicated with all the different railroad stations along the line. They always knew when trains left the previous station and when they were due at their next station.
“What’s that got to do with the watches?” I asked.
“I’m getting to that,” Mother said. “The telegraph operator has the watches. And I’ve heard that these fellows have sold more watches than almost all the regular stores combined.”
“How did that happen?” I asked. It fascinated me that somebody would buy a pocket watch at a train station. If I learned all about it, I’d have something to share in school. Sometimes, Mr. Foster took time to allow a student to tell something interesting he or she had learned.
So far, the most interesting tale had came from Johnny Wilson. He’d entered his frog in a frog-jumping contest and won. Then he explained that he poured BBs down the other frogs’ throats when nobody was looking, so his frog could jump the farthest.
Cheater! Why would he admit such a deceptive thing? He just laughed and said he’d read about it in a book called The Celebrated Jumping Frog. Mr. Foster did not believe Johnny, and neither did anybody else, so Johnny brought the book to school. In one of Mr. Foster’s better moods, he read the story to us. After that, the others weren’t all that angry at Johnny anymore. It was actually a pretty good story (and a swell way to spend the time in the classroom rather than being bent over a spelling book). The story takes place in Calaveras County, north of Fresno County, so that made it even better! (Click on the cover to read this short story for free.)
“Andrea?” Mother asked.
I jumped back to Mother’s story. I hoped it would turn out as interesting as Johnny’s.
“The first pocket-watch sales were arranged by a man named Richard, who was a telegraph operator,” Mother said. “He was on duty in a Minnesota train station one day when a load of watches arrived from back East. It was a huge crate of pocket watches. No one ever came to claim them.”
“Nobody?” I asked, astonished. How could anybody forget to pick up their watches?
“Richard sent a telegram to the manufacturer and asked what they wanted him to do with their watches,” Mother went on. “The manufacturer didn’t want to pay to have them shipped all the way back to their eastern warehouse, so they asked Richard to see if he could sell them. So Richard did. He got an idea to telegraph all the rest of the agents along the line and asked if they wanted to sell watches too.”
“Yes,” Mother said. “Richard sold the entire case of pocket watches in less than two days and at a handsome profit. Then Richard got an even brighter idea. He ordered more watches from the watch company and encouraged all the telegraph operators to set up a display case in the train station, offering high-quality watches for a cheap price to all the travelers.”
“Did his idea work?” I asked.
“Oh, yes!” Mother chuckled. “The travelers loved the watches. It didn’t take long for word to spread. Before long, other people–not just travelers–came to the train station just to buy watches.”
“Like us!” I said, laughing.
“Richard became so busy that he had to hire a professional watchmaker to help him with the orders. He hired a man named Alvah.”
“Alvah? What kind of a name is that?” I asked. “Are you funning me, Mother?” (Sometimes my brother Mitch tells the tallest tales, some better than dime novels.)
“No, I am not,” Mother assured me. “That is his name. Their business took off, and soon they decided to sell other things besides watches. Richard and Alvah left the train station and moved their new company to Chicago. And it’s still there.”
I pondered Mother’s story while we looked at the pocket watches in the display cabinet. We found one we thought Justin might like, and Mother bought it. Mr. Owens wrapped it up and tied it with a string. I couldn’t help thinking how odd it was to have Mr. Owens wrapping packages rather than Mr. Goodwin.
“Mother,” I asked when we left the station. “What other items do those two fellows, Richard and Alvah, sell besides watches now?”
“Why, Andrea!” Mother said, laughing again. “I bought that nice little parlor set for Hannah’s dollhouse just this last Christmas. I bought it from Richard and Alvah.”
“Huh? Do you know them? Did you meet them?”
“No, sweetheart, but I am well acquainted with their mail-order catalog. It is called the Sears-Roebuck & Company Catalog, named for Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck.”
When I got home, I pulled the catalog off the shelf and looked at the cover. Yep. Sure enough, their names were on the cover. And to think they got their start by selling watches in the railroad station!
Mrs. M. spent many happy childhood hours with her sisters paging through the Sears catalog, especially the special “Wish Book” that came in the fall for Christmas shopping. We designed our future imaginary homes with furnishings we cut out of the catalog (when our mom was finished with it). Check out this pictorial gallery. Sears offered two catalogs a year (plus the “wish” book): fall/winter and spring/summer. We found things we “wished” to have, our mom filled out a paper ordering form, and then she mailed it to Sears back east. (Later on, you could call in an order too.) A few weeks later, the items arrived. Oh, happy days!
Today, we order online, unheard of back then. I guess you could call Amazon the largest “catalog” in the world!
9 thoughts on “Where Can I Buy a Watch?”
My brothers and i called the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs “wish-books.” They offered hours if entertainment, especially the Christmas catalogs.
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OK, I didn’t know any of this. And now I feel like a baby cuz I was a child of the internet.
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That’s cool thx
Neat. Never knew all that. Especially that the telegraph operators sold watches!
This was a great post! I loved reading and learning about this historical stuff.
Wow! This is a cool story. I love learning new historical things.
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