In the mid-1880s, while working as a railway station agent in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, Richard Warren Sears paid $50 for a shipment of watches that arrived at the train station and had been refused by a local merchant. Selling them to other railway agents and passengers, Sears turned $50 worth of watches into $500 in a few months.
His timing could not possibly have been any better.
With the advent of the steam locomotive and reliable passenger rail service, people could now travel hundreds of miles each day, but there was a problem with all this expeditious movement. In the early 1880s, the United States had 300 different time zones. You read that right: 300.
In November 1883, railway companies established four time zones to help manage and standardize the complex train schedules. As folks adapted to the new time zones, watches became a hot commodity.
In 1886, 23-year-old Sears invested his $5000 cash profit into a new watch business and called it the “R. W. Sears Watch Company.” He advertised his watches in regional newspapers and in a short time, he moved the business from Minneapolis to Chicago.
Around 1891, Sears and Roebuck published their first mail order catalog, offering jewelry and watches within its 52 pages. By 1893, the little watch and jewelry catalog had grown to 196 pages and offered a variety of items, including sewing machines, shoes, saddles and more. One year later, another 300 pages were added, creating a 507-page mail order catalog.
On November 1, 1908, 44-year-old Richard W. Sears emerged from a terse closed-door meeting with his business partner Julius Rosenwald and announced that he would resign as President from his own company. Sears’ reason for retiring: He “didn’t see the work as fun anymore.” A short time later, Sears sold his stock for $10 million dollars. There was another reason for his departure. Sears wanted more time to take care of his ailing wife, who had suffered from ill health for years.
In September 1914, at the age of 50, Sears died, having turned $50 worth of pocket watches into a multi-million dollar mail order empire. His estate was valued at more than $20 million.
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