Saturday, July 19, 2014

Anybody Want to Buy a Watch?

Did you ever think about how certain big stores got their start? Ever heard of the old Sears & Roebuck company? I used to love their Christmas Wish Book, and we ordered out of their catalog a lot! 

Read on for a fun history tale . . .  from Andi's point of view. 
Note: The history part is true, but I took some literary license setting the story during Andi's childhood. The real story actually takes place in 1880, and the catalog is an 1897 edition.  

     When I was about eight years old, Mother took me to the train station. "We're not going to see Aunt Rebecca, are we?" I asked in horror. Aunt Rebecca drove me crazy with her "young lady" ideas.
      "No," Mother told me. "It's Justin's birthday next week and I am going to buy him a new pocket watch."
       I crinkled my eyebrows. "But, Mother! Aren't you going to buy the watch at the store?"
       "I could," Mother told me, "but I wanted a watch a little less expensive and of better quality than those I can buy at the mercantile . . . or even at Ross's Jewelry store."
      "Why is the railroad company selling pocket watches?" was my next question. I knew they sold railway tickets, and I knew they even sold candy and peanuts on board, but watches? Uh-uh! That sounded silly to me. So I laughed. 
      "The railroad company isn't selling the watches, not at all," Mother said. "Mr. Owens, the telegraph operator, is."
       This confused me more. I knew 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 on those rare occasions 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 there," Mother said. "It's the telegraph operator who had the watches. And I have 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 sure have something to share in school on Monday. 
       Sometimes Miss Hall let us take turns standing up and telling the class interesting things. So far, the most interesting tale 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! He said he read about it in a book called The Celebrated Jumping Frog. Miss Hall didn't believe him, so Johnny brought the book to school, and Miss Hall read it out loud to us. It was a pretty good story! Read it HERE online.

        "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. 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 them what they wanted to do with the watches. The manufacturer didn't want to pay to have them shipped all the way back to their eastern warehouse, so they wired 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.
       "Did they?"
       "Yes," Mother said. "Richard sold the entire case of pocket watches in less than two days, and at a handsome profit." 
       That means he made money.
       Then Richard got a clever idea. He ordered more watches from the watch company and encouraged 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. It worked! The travelers loved the watches. It didn't take long for the word to spread. Before long, people other than 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 told the tallest tales.
       "No, indeed, Andrea," Mother assured me. 

       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.
        "Mother," I said when she had picked out a new pocket watch for Chad and we'd left the station, "what things do that Richard and Alvah fella sell besides watches now?"
        "Why, Andrea!" Mother said, laughing again. "I bought that nice little parlor set for you girls' dollhouse from Richard and Alvah."
        "Huh? Do you know them?" 
        "No, dear, but I am very 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 selling watches in a train station! 



  1. That's really enteresting;-)
    Mrs. M when is Elizabeth's birthday???

  2. You never know what kind of things you'll learn from this blog. ;) I love it. :)


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