NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links

Montgomery Ward
The World's First Mail-Order Business

Ann Kim
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

Today the mass-distribution mail-order industry is one of the nation's largest businesses in terms of employment, sales, and as a long-time partner in the development of the United States postal system. The mail-order industry started about a hundred years ago with Aaron Montgomery Ward, who tried out an idea and launched an industry that has influenced the lifestyles of millions of American families. Ward, a young traveling salesman of dry goods, was concerned over the plight of many rural midwest Americans who he thought were overcharged and underserved by many of the smalltown retailers on whom they had to rely for their general merchandise. Hence, he established the first mail-order business at Chicago in 1872.

Aaron Montgomery Ward began
his successful retail dry-goods
business as a mail-order company.

Aaron Ward

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. Others entered the field, and by 1971 catalog sales of major U.S. firms exceeded more than $250 million in postal revenue. Although today the Sears Tower in Chicago is the world's
tallest building, there was a time when Montgomery Ward's headquarters was similarly distinguished. The Montgomery Ward Tower, on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Madison Street in Chicago, reigned as a major tourist attraction in the early 1900s. Aaron Montgomery Ward, who was called "one of the nation's first environmentalists," said that he "fought for the poor people of Chicago, not for the millionaires. Here is a park frontage on the lake, comparing favorably with the Bay of Naples, which city officials would crowd with buildings, transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a show ground for the educated rich."

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— 100 years before Ralph Nader" for his firm stand on behalf of the rights of the consumer to a fair deal.—[From The American Historical Society, Ward and Allied Families; "Aaron Montgomery," html; miscellaneous items concerning Aaron Montgomery Ward and Montgomery Ward & Co. on file at the Illinois State Historical Library; Montgomery Ward & Co. The Backpage, Jan., Nov. 1980; The Backpage: Looking Backward; "Ward," Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois.]

Ward Building
Montgomery Ward eventually established retail locations, and the flagship store was located on the block of Michigan Avenue between Madison and Washington streets.


|Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois History A Magazine for Young People 2000|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library