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Friday, August 19, 2011

Montgomery Ward Catalog

By Anna Kathryn Lanier
Yesterday was 129th anniversary of the launch of an innovative idea that  became an American icon.  On August 18, 1872 Aaron Montgomery Ward started what would become a 113-year business with the first mail-order catalog on a single sheet of paper.  Montgomery was born in New Jersey in 1844, but his father moved the family to Michigan when he was nine.  At the age of the fourteen, he became an apprentice for a barrel making factory, before working in a brick factory. He later moved to St. Joseph, where he entered the retail business.  Within a few short years, he’d worked his way up from mere clerk to manager, making $100 a month, plus board, excellent pay at that time.

In 1866 Ward moved to Chicago and started working for Field, Palmer and Leiter, the forerunning of Marshall Field and Co. For several years, he travelled by train and horse buggy to rural merchants, listening to complaints from both owners and their customers on the hardships of receiving goods. He decided there had to be a better way of delivering merchandise to rural Americans. Though his idea was considered to be not only radical, but crazy and his first bit of inventory was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire (1871), he pushed on. With two fellow investors and $1,400, he started his mail-order business with 163 items available.    

Both his partners sold out a few years later and his brother-in-law, George Thorne joined the company.  With the help of members of the Patrons of Husbandry, the Midwestern farmers’ association, the business grew rapidly from the single sheet of paper advertising merchandise to a 152-page catalog with over 3,000 items in it by 1876.

In 1897 the catalog was 1,000 pages and annual sales were $7 million.  By 1910, sales were $21 million and the company employed 7,000 people at their Chicago operations.  In another 10 years, by 1920, sales exceeded $100 million in mail orders. A few years later the company opened its first retail store and did well during the Great Depression, with annual sales going from $200 million to $400 million. The company didn’t do as well during the last half of the 20th Century and in 1985, the company closed its 113-year-old catalog operation. In 2000 it announced the closing of its retail stores.

Throughout the years, Ward's catalog sold all manner of goods. Clothing, underwear, corsets, shoes, cellos, toilets, barbed wire, windmills, bells, bicycles, steam engines, butter molds, clocks and, even, birth control….though it wasn’t called that, of course….could be found between the catalog covers. When the new ‘wish book’ arrived, the old one more than likely was sent to the outhouse for additional usage.

With his novel idea, hard work and the slogan adopted in 1875, “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” Montgomery Ward proved to consumers and naysayers alike that reaching the far corners of rural America was good business.

Reference websites:

SEDUCED BY HISTORY AUGUST CONTEST: Seduced by History Blog is hosting a month-long contest in August. One winner will receive a ‘basketful of goodies.’ All you have to do is check in on each blog during the month, look for a contest question to answer and September 1-5, 2011 send in your answers to seducedbyhistoryblog@yahoo.com. For full details, read the information on the right or click the CONTEST page.

My question: How many pages was the very first Montgomery Ward Catalog and how many items did it feature? (information given in two different paragraphs)

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hatswww.annakathrynlanier.com


Roseanne Dowell said...

Absolutely amazing. From a simple idea to rich success.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Anna Kathryn, thank you so much for the info. I have an 1897 Sears catalog (reproduction) and I love looking through it. Simply everything was available, but not in the order I would expect.

Beth Trissel said...

Wonderful info. I love this vintage Americana post.

Anonymous said...

A smart man...listening to people and giving them what they want...that must be the secret of success!! Great post!

Lilly Gayle said...

When my grandmother died, she left everyone some furniture and personal items. One of the things I got was an antique steamer trunk. Inside were quits, a crochet afghan, and a 1894 Montgomery Ward's catalog. I love history and antiques so I was fascinated. I read the catalog as if it were a romance novel. And from that catalog came the germ of an idea for a historical romance set in 1888 New York. TWRP contracted the book this year and Wholesale Husband goes on sale 9/28/11.

Thanks for posting this and reminding me what initially inspired my story.

Paty Jager said...

Fun information! My mom bought all our school clothes out of the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, everyone. I've been out of the house so jus tnow reading your comments. Thanks for stopping by.

In the 1970's, my mom got wallpaper with the Seasr's Catalog on it and did our kitchen with it.

Isabella Macotte said...

Facinating post. I love this kind of info.

Margaret said...

Interesting post. Thanks for the info.

Morgan Mandel said...

Wards was one of my favorite store. I loved their catalog, but never bought through it. Always went to the store instead.

Great bit of history!

Morgan Mandel

J.D. Faver said...

I was raised in rural Oklahoma and I can remember leafing through the Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs as a child. Great memories. Thanks for bringing them back, Anna Kathryn.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Having lived in the mountains for most of our married life, we couldn't have lived as well without the Montgomery catalog. I used it for just about everything. God Bless both Montgomery Wards and Sears Roebuck.

Gerri Bowen said...

Interesting post, Anna. I remember the Sears and Wards catalogs. Used to look trough them as a child, and even after I married. Miss them.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Anna! A great post as usual, and inspiring too. I love seeing someone who has a genuinely useful idea profit from it (as opposed to the silly stuff that people make money on these days).

We never had a Wards catalog but we bought lots of stuff from the Sears Catalog, even though we didn't particularly live in a rural area. I distinctly remember they had a special Christmas season catalog. My siblings and I used to pore over it, making up imaginary gift lists for ourselves.

Tanya Hanson said...

Wonderful post. I mention the Montgomery Ward and Company catalog in my historical Westerns. When it closed in 2001, it had been the oldest retailer in America. So sad.

I think I heard that when Sears and Roebuck started up a catalog, they made theirs smaller so folks would naturally lay it across the MW one so it would get looked at and ordered from first LOL.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have pics or information about the western saddles that Montgomery Ward sold in the 1920's to 1940's? Is there a Montgomery Ward museum or display of items that they sold during that same time period?

Anonymous said...

Okay my name is really mary. I don't have a google account. And I have never really read this story but. The girl who made it did nicley done.

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