Manuscripts/Mixed Material Interview with Robert E. Asher
ASHER: He graduated from high school in Memphis. He had an older sister, ten years older, who was married to a businessman in Peoria, Illinois. At the age of 15, Dad went to work, sweeping out the store early in the morning, putting things in order at the end of the day, and so on, for this uncle of mine. He hated the job. My uncle, a hard-working, successful businessman, was not exactly the kind-hearted relative but a demanding boss. The first chance that Dad got, he took his bicycle and rode 100 miles to Chicago, where he had another married sister, with five dollars, a mandolin and a lead that he thought might get him a job as a journalist. He got a job with a magazine, I've forgotten the name of it, it died a long time ago, but it specialized in doing puffed up stories on the big businessmen in Chicago, where fortunes were being made in steel, railroads, meat-packing and merchandising. Early in his career, Dad was able to obtain an interview with Richard Sears, the president and chief guiding spirit of a new mail-order company, Sears Roebuck. Mr. Sears liked the interview so much that he ordered 10,000 reprints to be sent out to customers and offered my father a job in what was then the correspondence department. There it was not just “your order has been received and mailed.” Lonely farmers poured out their hearts to Sears. They told Sears about their sick cows, their mothers-in-law, their corn crops, etc.
Q: This was a vital institution for farmers and people living outhere. They didn't have radio or anything like that.
ASHER: That's right. They really looked to Sears Roebuck to give them advice and answers. It was a fascinating exposure to problems of ordinary people in the U.S. From correspondent, Dad was soon made advertising manager and in that capacity he put out the first free mail order catalogue in this country. Up until then, Sears and Montgomery Ward had charged for their catalogues. It was a big thing. Dad and Mr. Sears had this idea o“Send no money, get a free catalogue.” That was extremely successful and became the norm for mail-order companies.
Dad worshiped Richard Sears, who had great charisma, and soon made him general manager of this upcoming business. In about 1908, Mr. Sears left and Julius Rosenwald became his successor. There was some tension between Mr. Sears anMr. Rosenwald. Sears was the great innovator, the great imaginer, the bold entrepreneur. Rosenwald was a much more cautious person, who had come through the clothing business to the point where Sears Roebuck owed him a lot of money. My father left at about the same time as Richard Sears, and established his own mail-order clothing business. It was quite successful until the Great Depression killed the mail-order clothing business. But I think it was dying before then, thanks to the automobile, the proliferation of urban centers, and the ease of obtaining suits, coats and dresses in standard sizes from accessible retail stores
Q: What's background of your mother, and how did your parents meet?