Brief History: R. W. Sears Watch Co.
(Sears-Roebuck & Co)
1886 - Present
"Make a watch sell a watch"
The Sears-Roebuck Company, truly one of the great merchandising empires of the 20th century, wasn't a watch manufacturer. But the Sears-Roebuck story is nonetheless inextricably intertwined with American horological history.
Richard Warren Sears
Richard Warren Sears was born in 1863 in Stewartville, Minnesota to James Warren Sears and Eliza Burton, both of English descent. His father worked as a blacksmith and wagonwright, and also served on the city council in Spring Valley, Minnesota, where Richard spent his early years. The family was prosperous, but fell on financial hard times when James lost all his money in a failed stock venture.
Because of this, Richard was forced to go to work at a young age in order to help support the family. He learned to be a telegraph operator, and worked for the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, where he eventually became a railroad station agent at North Redwood, Minnesota.
It was during Sears time as a station agent that American horological and merchandising history was made. In those days, fly-by-night COD companies would send out merchandise unsolicited to small town jewelers or retailers. A day or two later, the storekeeper would receive a letter or telegram saying the shipment had been sent "by mistake" and they could purchase the merchandise at a "deeply discounted price!" One particular North Redwood jeweler had been "scammed" this way before, and refused a large consignment of pocket watches.
Sears was constantly on the lookout for ways to supplement his meager income, and when he learned of the pocket watches Sears sought permission from the wholesaler to take over the consignment and try to sell the watches himself. As a telegraph operator and station agent, he was able to sell his watches to the crews of every train that came through the station. Word quickly spread to other station agents "up and down the line" and the railroad provided a ready method to deliver his merchandise.
His new watch business grew so quickly that within six-months he quit his job at the railroad, and moved to Minneapolis where he could focus all his attention on his mail-order watch business, and in 1886, at the age of 22, he founded the R.W. Sears Watch Company.
By 1887, with business flourishing, Sears moved to Chicago. Sears produced a 50-page mail-order catalog devoted entirely to watches, and was soon selling thousands of dollars worth of "fully guaranteed" watches each month. But some of the fully guaranteed watches wouldn't run or keep good time, and the cost of refunds or replacements was having an impact on the bottom line. Sears decided that repairing the watches would be cheaper than replacing them, and advertised for the services of a good watchmaker in the Chicago Daily News: "WANTED: Watchmaker with reference who can furnish tools. State age, experience and salary required. ADDRESS T39, Daily News."
Alvah Curtis Roebuck
Born in Lafayette, Indiana on January 9, 1864, Alvah C. Roebuck grew up on a farm, but showed an early aptitude and great interest for all things mechanical. By the age of 16, he was a self-taught watchmaker, and at the age of 22 was employed as a watchmaker at a small jeweler in Hammond, Indiana. On April 1, 1887, Roebuck responded to an advertisement for a watchmaker in the Chicago Daily News, and two days later was hired by Richard Sears. Thus began one of the world's greatest business partnerships, started by a watch-seller and a watchmaker, and in 1893 the company was incorporated as Sears-Roebuck & Company.
Richard Sears served on the Board of Directors of the Sears-Roebuck Company until 1913. He died in September of 1914 at the age of 50. Alvah C. Roebuck died on June 18, 1948 at the age of 84.
Sears was not a watch manufacturer, but contracted watches initially from Elgin, and later from Illinois who produced "private label" watches as a major part of their business. Elgin produced watches for Sears as early as 1886; marked with the "R.W. Sears" name on both movement and dial.
Illinois also started producing watches for Sears in 1886, making 7-jewel, gilded-plate IWC-grade watches marked "R.W. Sears Watch Co., Minneapolis, Minn." and labeled "FAMOUS" on the movement. Note that the Illinois-produced watches were marked only on the movement; they were not marked on the dial (perhaps because Illinois charged an extra $1 per watch to customize the dial with the private-label name). Sears also used the names "RAILROAD MAGNET", "DEFIANCE", "TIME CARD", and the somewhat self-aggrandizing "RICHARD" on their watch movements.
Sears also sold watches under the "Edgemere" brand name, made by Seth Thomas, Trenton, and various Swiss manufacturers. The "Plymouth" brand name used watches from Rockford, Illinois, and several other manufacturers.
The "Interstate Chronometer" brand name, produced exclusively by Illinois for Sears, probably represented Sears' highest-quality watch line. Some of the highest grade Illinois watch movements, including the 23-jewel Bunn Special, were used in the Sears "Interstate Chronometer" line.
R.W. Sears Watch Company
Sears-Roebuck Serial Numbers and Production Dates
Since Sears used only private-label watches, one must consult the serial number table for the original manufacturer (primarily Elgin and Illinois) to correctly date a Sears-Roebuck watch.
In recent years, parts for many watches sold under the Sears name have become very difficult to find. Some repairs are simply no longer possible. Please contact us if you have any questions about the repair of your antique Sears-Roebuck watch.