Harris Typewriter Company and Sears, Roebuck, and Company had an early partnership starting before World War I and persisting until after the post-war depression. (A great article on how the Harris Typewriter Company began can be found on Will Davis’ blog, Davis Typewriter Works (2015), at http://davistypewriters.blogspot.com/2015/01/harris-visible-rex-visible-demountable.html.) Prior to their relationship with Harris, Sears advertised toy typewriters such as the Simplex, cheaper typewriters such as the Little Gem, Practical, and Coffman's Pocket Typewriter, and some of the most treasured typewriters in the collecting world today, such as the Crandall, Merritt, and Chicago. It was their partnership with Harris that introduced the standard model to the pages of their catalog.
The public relationship between Harris and Sears began in the 1912 winter edition of the Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Catalog, which advertised "A New Typewriter at a New Price" to be available for sale starting September 1, 2012.
The first mention of the brand was in winter 1913. Here a picture of the typewriter at the top of a full-page ad clearly shows the Harris Visible No. 4, the first model sold by the company, and advertised it as "A Standard $100 Typewriter for $39.80”. Sears offered a 30-day trial to test out the machine before paying.
The following season, spring 1914, the ad took four full pages to spell out exactly how to operate the machine. Perhaps Sears had hoped that by providing more detail about this standard model, customers would feel more comfortable in its purchase.
Meanwhile, the Great War, also known as World War I, broke out in Europe in July 1914. In winter of that same year, Sears continued advertising the Harris Visible in a now five page ad, and added user feedback, the equivalent of today's customer reviews posted in Amazon.com.
By spring 1915, Sears seems to have taken advantage of the increase in inflation that took place during World War I (Economic history of the United States, 2019), and increased the price of the Harris Visible to $44.50 while maintaining the 5-page ad.
By winter 1915, the ad was taken back down to just one page.
Although the stock market had their best year in 1916 (Economic history of the United States, 2019), the price didn't increase again until winter 1917, when it rose another $2 to $46.50. According to the Official Data Foundation (2019), $46.50 is the equivalent today to $928.36, while the increase of $2 was the equivalent of increasing the cost of the typewriter by $39.93!
By spring 1918, Sears decided not only to again increase the price, this time to $57.50, but also decreased the trial period from 30-10 days. Catching up with Singer's 1850 marketing style to charge customers of his sewing machine based on an installment plan (Rhode, 2009), the typewriter was advertised in this catalog with a payment plan of $1.50 down and $3.00 per month. Interestingly, these changes coincided with the United States entry into World War I. The US declared war on Germany in April 1917, but didn't send troupes to Europe until mid-1918. By November 1918 the Great War was over (World War I, 2019).
In winter 1919, the price went up yet again to $69.75, with a payment plan of $3.50 down and $4.00 per month. This decision tracked well with the Dow Jones Index (JayHenry, 2019), which rose sharply in 1919, reaching its peak in November.
In spring 1920, Sears was so sure of it’s deal that they maintained the 10 day trial, and required no money down. At $4.00 per month, the full price of $69.75 could be paid over time. The ad also went back up to two full pages.
The depression that hit the post-war United States economy in 1920-1921 (JayHenry, 2019) seemed to catch up with Sears in spring 1921. While increasing their payment terms from $4 to $6.97 per month (for a total of $69.70, or the equivalent of $995.07 in today's dollars (Official Data Foundation, 2019)), they dropped the full payment price by $6.25, down to $63.50, an equivalent drop of $89.23 in today's dollars (Official Data Foundation, 2019).
Winter 1921 saw a revisit of the down payment of $5.00, with $6.47 per month, resulting in the same final prices.
Although the depression was over, another price drop occurred in spring 1922, to $62.75, and it appears the payment plan was taken off the table for that season. The ad again returned to one simple page.
It appears inventory of the Harris Visible eventually declined by spring 1923; this is the last time the typewriter appears in the general catalog. Sears made one last price change and brought back the payment plan of a $3.00 deposit followed by monthly $5.00 payments, for a full payment of $61.70. They also introduced a price difference between the standard keyboard and the one containing fractions for the first time. The fraction keyboard had been offered since winter 1914 (along with a medical keyboard offered 1914-1916), but always at the same price as the regular keyboard. This year the price was increased by $5.00 for a total of $66.70, perhaps reflecting where their supply was limited in the final year of advertisement. This final ad was only half a page.
It seems that the prices of the Harris Visible fluctuated with the economic status of the United States, as would be expected. It would be interesting to understand how and why the relationship between Sears and Harris dissolved, and why they never went back to Harris, even though that typewriter looked almost exactly the same as other standard models they later advertised in the pages of their general catalog.
For a few years, Sears continued to advertise only toy typewriters and typewriter supplies, but in spring 1927, they brought back another standard model with a similar appearance, the Remington Standard 10. This machine was advertised at $45 cash/ $50 payment plan prices in a half-page ad. If you read this ad carefully, you will note that this typewriter is actually a “Rebuilt” machine.
Now, review, for a moment, the former Harris Visible ad in spring 1915. Check out that last page, a little over halfway down:
Amusing, no? It seems that Sears understood good quality from the beginning, but eventually determined that cost might be more important to their customers than quality. Either that, or found that quality wasn't nearly as different between rebuilt and original machines than originally thought.
Davis, W. (2015, January 19). Harris Visible, Rex Visible, Demountable; Name variants; Vim Visible [Blog post]. Retrieved from Typewriter Works, http://davistypewriters.blogspot.com/2015/01/harris-visible-rex-visible-demountable.html
JayHenry. (2019, June 4). Depression of 1920-21. In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 4, 2019, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7851796
Economic history of the United States. (2019, May 23). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 4, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_history_of_the_United_States
Official Data Foundation. (2019). U.S. dollar inflation calculator. Retrieved from https://www.officialdata.org/
Rhode, S. (2009). The history of credit & debt - Early installment sales [Blog post]. Retrieved from Get Out of Debt Guy(SM), https://getoutofdebt.org/14344/the-history-of-credit-debt-early-installment-sales
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World War I. (2019, May 31). In Wikipedia. Retrieved June 1, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I