Occult Science, Civil Rights & the Sears Roebuck Catalog – Is Consumer Capitalism a Master Key to Diversity?


“In the era of Jim Crow, race was everything. And for black Americans, most of whom were rural farmers, access to goods on an equal basis as whites in faraway cities at reasonable prices was a godsend. And that’s what the catalog was.”

– Louis Hyman, Director, Institute for Workplace Studies, Cornell University

Sears recent bankruptcy announcement has lead to some nostalgic media on the company’s influence over the years – including an opportunity for historian Louis Hyman to present his fascinating research on the role of consumer capitalism in providing an atmosphere conducive to empowering the civil rights movement.

In an NPR interview that aired on October 17th, 2018 Hyman details how the Sears Catalog provided a way for minority groups to circumvent the white power structure and access the global economy via mail order. What struck me most was how familiar this process is – having seen the exact same dynamic at play with mail order pioneer, L.W. de Laurence and the famed De Laurence’s Catalogue of Books for Mystics: Together with a Complete “cabinet” of Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study!

Talking with NPR host Mary Louise Kelly, Hyman detailed how local authorities and business interests went to great lengths in their attempts to stop individuals from accessing the freedoms offered by Sears mail order service. Public bonfires of the catalog, as well as more direct harassment when folks came in to post their orders, were used to dissuade buyers from skirting past the social strictures put in place by the power structure.

For the de Laurence Catalogue, which, in addition to it’s psychic and occult supplies, offered what today would be called personal success training and professional development to marginalized individuals and groups, authorities in the Caribbean went so far as to ban the catalog entirely:

De Laurence: sb dial, also attrib; <De Laurence, a Chicago publisher of books on occult subjects, banned from Jamaica. Witch-craft; loosely, obeah.

– from the Dictionary of Jamaican English, by Frederic Gomes Cassidy, R. B. Le Page (University of West Indies Press, 2002)

As I’ve examined in a previous article – historian Owen Davies, in his work Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, points out that the ban has long been seen as “a cynical attempt by the British to limit the influence of unionism and the American black empowerment movement.” Even after Jamaica declared independence in 1962, and in light of subsequent socialist governments, the ban remains in place.

delaurence-catalog-1938-1939-occult_1_ec3f260fa7c110a830a8148578811378_3Speculation on the political importance of “High Science” becomes solidified when we realize that one of Jamaica’s most powerful examples of radical politics, Marcus Garvey, was himself heavily influenced by the New Thought and Mind Science ideas that were promoted in some of the more popular publications in the De Laurence Catalog. Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was touched by a mystical strain and mythological importance garnered from tapping into the cultural movements initiated, supported and propagandized by publishing company’s such as the Yogi Publication Society and De Laurence, Scott and Company.

According to Hyman, just as de Laurence did with his own catalog, R.W. Sears “published instructions in the catalog – how to simply give the requirements to the postman so you didn’t have to go through the store. And in a lot of places, the post office was also the general store, so it was pretty complicated to even get your order submitted to the catalog. But they found lots of ways to do this for rural African-Americans as well as immigrants, people who didn’t even speak English. They had all kinds of clerks available to take your order in nearly any tongue.” Even the focus on native language marketing that Hyman points on regarding Sears can be found in de Laurence’s practice of hiring immigrants from Africa to help facilitate his sales on the continent.

delaurence-catalog-1938-1939-occult_1_ec3f260fa7c110a830a8148578811378_2Based on his analysis, Hyman points to the neutral, market building mechanisms of consumer capitalism as one of the driving forces behind the similarities we see between these two very different pioneers of the mail order format – and also a driving force in the cultural changes that their catalogs subtly supported during one of America’s most troubling periods of social history. This same process is at play in the emergence and growth of Saint Death’s devotional tradition around the globe – as Santa Muerte continues to fill out her role as one of the fastest growing spiritual practices in the world.

What many see as crass commercialization of Santa Muerte’s tradition can also be analyzed as a surprising and subtle tool for cultural integration and communication. The semi-independent economies developed through more informal structures such as the Sears Catalog are now trillion dollar opportunities. According to the most recent Multi-Cultural Economy Report put out by the University of Georgia Selig Center for Economic Growth, “African American buying power in the United States will rise to $1.54 trillion by 2022,” and the numbers for Latin American and Hispanic buying power are not far behind.

One of the phrases popularized by Santa Muerte’s devotees is that in death, all are equal – and it seems that for a true consumer capitalist, if the money’s green it’s good to spend no matter who you get it from. While the errors of unchecked capitalism can be easily debated by experts, it may be that in some small way and in certain situations – consumer capitalism is a master key to diversity.

Another subject for future study!

Until then:

For Louis Hyman’s appearance on NPR’s All Things Considered check out – How The Sears Catalog Was Revolutionary In The Jim Crow Era

For more on the surprising cultural life of the de Laurence Catalogue check out – L.W. de Laurence and the Mysterious Influence of One Human Mind – originally published at The Daily Grail in 2012.

For more on the role of consumer capitalism in the growth of Santa Muerte’s devotional tradition, check out – Selling Holy Death – From Grim Reaper to Skeletal Virgin, A Brief Look at Commercializing an Emerging Iconography

Also Note – the De Laurence Company brand is still in business if you’re looking for any ‘Materials Accessory to the Pursuit of Mystic Study’: http://www.delaurencecompany.com/

*UGA Selig Center numbers are found in the Forbes Magazine article  – Amazon Poaching Diverse Sellers from Ebay

Images of the de Laurence Catalog are courtesy of a completed Ebay auction. 

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