Today is the 175th birthday of the man with a vision to bring reasonably priced quality merchandise to rural America. Well before Sears created their catalog, Montgomery Ward was fulfilling the needs and wishes of those outside of major towns and cities. I loved the Montgomery Ward catalog, it was like looking into a different family’s life, not that they seemed happier or better, but they did wear a lot of brightly colored clothing, were constantly having some sort of party and were entertained by toys and games I didn’t really see the excitement around. My grandparents had several old Montgomery ward catalogs on the stairs up to their third floor, I would look through them often and loved how vintage they seemed. I had to just assume that was how it was in 1968, that life was exactly like an episode of “Gidget.” It seemed just fine to me. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
BEST KNOWN FOR: American entrepreneur based in Chicago who made his fortune through the use of mail order for retail sales of general merchandise to rural customers. In 1872 he founded Montgomery Ward & Company, which became nationally known.
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1844, in Chatham, New Jersey, to a family whose forebears had served as officers in the French and Indian War as well as in the American Revolution. When he was about nine years old, his father, Sylvester Ward, moved the family to Niles, Michigan, where Aaron attended public schools until he reached the age of fourteen. He was one of a large family, which at that time was far from wealthy. When he was fourteen, he was apprenticed to a trade to help support the family. According to his brief memoirs, he first earned 25 cents per day at a cutting machine in a barrel stave factory, and then stacking brick in a kiln at 30 cents a day. He noted that the experience greatly increased his knowledge. Energy and ambition drove him onward, and he left the confining bonds of the mechanic’s work to seek employment for himself to give wider scope to his energy and ability. He followed the river to Lake Michigan, went to the town of St. Joseph, a market for outlying fruit orchards, and went to work in a shoe store. This was the initial step toward the project that later sent his name across the United States. Being a fair salesman, within nine months he was engaged as a salesman in a general country store at six dollars per month plus board, a considerable salary at the time. He rose to become head clerk and general manager and remained at this store for three years. By the end of those three years, his salary was one hundred dollars a month plus his board. He left for a better job in a competing store, where he worked another two years. In this period, Ward learned retailing.
In 1865 Ward located in Chicago, and worked for Case and Sobin, a lamp house. He traveled for them, and sold goods on commission for a short time. Chicago was the center of the wholesale dry-goods trade, and in the 1860s Ward joined the leading dry-goods house, Field Palmer & Leiter, forerunner of Marshall Field & Co. He worked for Field for two years and then joined the wholesale dry-goods business of Wills, Greg & Co. In tedious rounds of train trips to southern communities, hiring rigs at the local stables, driving out to the crossroads stores and listening to the complaints of the back-country proprietors and their rural customers, he conceived a new merchandising technique: direct mail sales to country people. It was a time when rural consumers longed for the comforts of the city, yet all too often were victimized by monopolists and overcharged by the costs of many middlemen required to bring manufactured products to the countryside. The quality of merchandise also was suspect and the hapless farmer had no recourse in a caveat emptor economy. Ward shaped a plan to buy goods at low cost for cash. By eliminating intermediaries, with their markups and commissions, and drastically cutting selling costs, he could sell goods to people, however remote, at appealing prices. He then invited them to send their orders by mail and delivered the purchases to their nearest railroad station. The only thing he lacked was capital.
None of Ward’s friends or business acquaintances joined in his enthusiasm for his revolutionary idea. Although his idea was generally considered to border on lunacy and his first inventory was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, Ward persevered. In August 1872, with two fellow employees and a total capital of $1,600, he rented a small shipping room on North Clark Street and published the world’s first general merchandise mail-order catalog with 163 products listed. It is said that in 1880, Aaron Montgomery Ward himself initially wrote all catalog copy. When the business grew and department heads wrote merchandise descriptions, he still went over every line of copy to be certain that it was accurate.
The following year, both of Ward’s partners left him, but he hung on. Later, Thorne, his future brother-in-law, joined him in his business. This was the turning point for the young company, which grew and prospered. Soon the catalog, frequently reviled and even burned publicly by rural retailers who had been cheating the farmers for so many years, became known fondly as the “Wish Book” and was a favorite in households all across America.
The Montgomery Ward catalog’s place in history was assured when the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles in New York, exhibited it in 1946 alongside Webster’s dictionary as one of one hundred American books chosen for their influence on life and culture of the people.
Ward’s catalog soon was copied by other enterprising merchants, most notably Richard W. Sears and Alvah C. Roebuck, who mailed their first general catalog in 1896
Montgomery Ward died December 8, 1913, at the age of 69. His wife bequeathed a large portion of the estate to Northwestern University and other educational institutions. Today, more than a century later, Montgomery Ward & Co. adheres to the philosophy of “satisfaction guaranteed.” This was an unheard-of policy when Ward announced it in 1875. Ward has been called “the first consumerist.”