Zora and the Sears Catalog

Julius Rosenwald's philanthropy was made possible by his astute management of Sears, Roebuck, the country's largest mail order company at the turn of the 19th century.  The Sears catalog made Rosenwald rich and meant he could invest in people by by assisting Southern  African Americans in building schools and by awarding fellowships to over 700 promising individuals -- most of them black.

The catalog looms large in the Rosenwald story for another, less high minded, reason.  I am going to let Zora Neale Hurston, whose difficult experience with the Rosenwald Fund I described in my previous post, explain. Here's an extended excerpt from her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road.

Our house (she writes of her childhood home in Eatonville, Florida) was a place where people came. Visiting preachers, Sunday school and B.Y.P.U. workers, and just friends. There was fried chicken for visitors, and other such hospitality as the house afforded.

Papa's bedroom was the guest room.  Store-bought towels would be taken out of the old round-topped trunk in Mama's room and draped on the wash-stand. The pitcher and bowl were scrubbed out before fresh water from the pump was put in there for the use of the guest.  Sweet soap was company soap. We knew that. Otherwise, Octagon laundry soap was used to keep us clean. Bleached-out meal sacks served the family for bath towels ordinarily, so that the store-bought towels could be nice and clean for visitors.

Company got the preference in toilet paper, too.  Old newspapers were put out in the privy house for family use.  But when company came, something better was offered them. Fair to middling guests got sheets out of the old Sears, Roebuck catalogue. But Mama would sort over her old dress patterns when really fine company came, and the privy house was well scrubbed, lime thrown in, and the soft tissue paper pattern stuck on a nail inside the place for the comfort and pleasure of our guests.  It was not that regular toilet paper was unheard of in our house.  It was just unthought of.  It was right there in the catalogue for us to see. But as long as we had Mr. Sears, Roebuck's catalogue, we had no need for his toilet paper.

This particular use for the pages of Sears catalogs figures in the memories of a lot of graduates of Rosenwald schools.

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Some schools even chose to restore their outhouses. Here I am outside the one at the Sadieville school in Kentucky.




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