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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: Montgomery Ward

Updated: Oct 2, 2022

In 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward issued the first "catalog" for his mail-order business. It was a single sheet listing 163 available items.

Originally from New Jersey, the Ward family moved to Michigan and Aaron Ward eventually got a job as a salesperson at a shoe store in a local town. He continued learn the retail business, moving to different stores and up to the position of general manager when he eventually became a traveling salesman for Field Palmer & Leiter, the forerunner of Marshall Field & Co.

Ward became concerned that in the Midwest rural areas customers were being overcharged and under-served by many of the small town retailers. Seeing an opportunity, he set up his new business based out of Chicago, buying goods at low cost for cash. By cutting out middle men and drastically cutting selling costs, he planned sell goods to people, however remote, at fair prices. He invited them to send their orders by mail and he delivered the purchases to their nearest railroad station. However, he lacked the finances to expand, and his first shipment of inventory was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

With two employees and $1600, in August 1872, he formed Montgomery Ward & Company, launching it with his first catalog, which he wrote the copy for. Ward offered low prices with no bargaining, and didn't extend credit to customers in order to keep costs down. Though he continued to struggle in the early years, by 1883, Ward's catalog, which became popularly known as the "Wish Book", had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items. It was a favorite in households all across America.

Montgomery Ward's catalog and mail order business was soon copied by other merchants, most notably Richard Warren Sears, who mailed his first general catalog in 1896 and by 1900, Wards had total sales of $8.7 million, compared to $10 million for Sears.

The same year that Richard Sears mailed his first general catalog, Aaron Montgomery Ward turned over the day to day operations to his brother-in-law, George Thorne (while keeping the title of president) and spent the rest of his life on philanthropic pursuits until his death in 1913. At that time, Montgomery Wards annual sales volume was $40M

As a footnote, Montgomery Ward's first retail store opened in 1926, in Plymouth, Indiana in two years, it had opened 244 stores. A year later, 531 stores with a flagship in Chicago. It spurned an offer to merge with Sears in 1930 and instead hired a new CEO who cut costs and placed more focus on retail store growth over their catalog business. (Ever since I posted about the launch of Encyclopedia Britannica, and they responded with "love, but a correction" because I had the wrong date, I've tried to dig deeper and not only learned more, but tried to check my facts. That said, I still can't say that everything I've written is if you find something you don't think is right, let me know. Encyclopedia Britannica was kind enough to!)


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