A Forward Thinking Man

Aaron Montgomery Ward

by Cheryl St. John

This is the time of year we can appreciate online shopping. No crowds, no icy parking lots, no cranky checkers, no lines, no lugging heavy items like cat litter to your vehicle. Fifteen or twenty years ago we thought ordering from catalogs was the height of convenience. We now have a world of items at our fingertips. Nearly anything can be delivered overnight if we’re willing to pay shipping. And if you shop often, some shipping is free! Our forefathers couldn’t have dreamed of the ease with which we shop today. We are a spoiled generation, and I don’t know about you, but I take advantage of it. I subscribe to have dishwasher pods, toilet tissue and cleaning products delivered right to my front door. Rain or shine.

But as early as the 1800s one savvy businessman was thinking up a way to take merchandise to people across the country. He thought big and he worked hard. He was a groundbreaker, a forward thinker.

The Montgomery Ward catalog is known as one of the most influential American books ever published. The Grolier Club stated: “The mail order catalog has been perhaps the greatest single influence in increasing the standard of American living. It brought the benefit of wholesale prices to city and hamlet, to the crossroads and prairie.”

AaronMontgomeryWardAaron Montgomery Ward was born in Chatham, New Jersey in 1844. His family traveled west to Niles, Michigan in 1853 where his father took up the cobbler’s trade. Aaron left school at fourteen to work in brickyards and a barrel factory where he learned his most valuable lesson: “I learned I was not physically or mentally suited for brick or barrel making.” Gotta love this guy. He was the Bill Gates of yesteryear.

After clerking at a shoe store and then a country store where he earned six dollars a month plus board, he was ready to go to the big city. Apparently he wasn’t physically or mentally suited for retail work either.

In the 1850s Chicago was home to thirty thousand people and known, none too affectionately, as “The Mudhole of the Prairies.” The streets were barely above the level of Lake Michigan and covered with bottomless goo. But by the late 1860s Chicago was teeming with post-Civil War energy. Fifteen railroad lines moved 150 trains a day out of the busy terminals. Like thousands of other young men, Ward arrived in Chicago in 1866 and began work in various dry goods firms, including one operated by Marshall Field. He became a salesman, his income rising to the princely sum of twelve whole dollars a week.

As he made his tedious rounds through the mud in his horse and buggy he took notice of the country stores. While they were friendly places with potbelly stoves and made fine meeting places for local farmers, they were far from friendly when the farmers had to actually buy something. Selection was small and prices were high. The storekeeper was at the mercy of the big city wholesalers. Sort of like American consumers and the oil companies.

Ward considered how he could help the disadvantaged farmer and decided on a mail order store. He would set up in the big city where he could easily reach suppliers and buy in quantity to get the best prices. A catalog listing his prices would be sent to farmers who would then receive their order by mail, cash on delivery. It was not a new idea but the few direct mail firms at the time sold only one or two items. Ward was going to bring the whole store to the farmer.

Ward worked and saved. He talked about his idea with friends and associates. The naysayers claimed he would go broke trying to sell goods sight-unseen to back country folk, but he was not dissuaded. By 1871 he finally saved enough money to buy a small amount of goods at wholesale prices.  As luck (or bad luck) would have it, on October 8, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire engulfed the city for thirty hours. Every building in a four square mile area was destroyed, and along with them…Ward’s inventory.

He was not discouraged. By August 1872 he had scraped up money and convinced a few people to join him, raising sixteen hundred dollars in working capital. He printed up a one-page price list and hand addressed the first circulars to the Grangers, a co-operative farm supply organization. One of his earliest pricelists contained 163 items under the banner “Supplied By The Cheapest Cash House In America.” Most of the items cost one dollar, even the clothing, a 6-view stereoscope, and a backgammon set.montgomerywardcat

For most of 1873, Ward’s mailbox was bare. By then his partners wanted out, and Ward, who still had his sales job, managed to buy them out of their small investments. The panic of 1873 was quickly sinking established traditional retailers, let alone his radical enterprise. His business was ridiculed by the Chicago Tribune as a disreputable firm “hidden from public gaze with no merchandise displayed and reachable only through the post office.” Under threat of a lawsuit, the Tribune printed a retraction. The retraction was added to the next flyer and sales increased.

About this time, ready-made clothing began appearing. It was always believed that no two people had the same measurements, and tailors were needed to make quality clothes. But the crunch for uniforms in the Civil War had demonstrated that certain combinations of measurements could be standardized. Ward told his faraway customers: “Give your age and describe your general build and we will nine times out of ten give you a fit.”

Ward, a short, stout man, wrote all the early copy. He always included a message in his catalogs, often educating the reader about buying and selling. “It is best to make your order around five dollars. Shipping charges on small orders will eat up your savings. Consider joining a buying club with your neighbors.” How smart was this guy?

As consumers came to trust Ward’s unseen store, business grew rapidly. He bound his first catalog in 1874 and in 1875 the book grew to seventy-two pages. Ward began to worry he might become too big and took an ad in Farmers Voice just to reassure his customers he had not lost touch with their needs.montgomeryward1930catalog

In 1893 Ward sold controlling interest to George R. Thorne who had come on as a partner late in 1873. Ward remained president, but after a while he stopped attending board meetings. The last twenty years of his life were spent preserving the Chicago waterfront as a park for the people. He spent over two hundred thousand dollars of his own money to defend the public’s right to open space.

His long-time efforts to prevent the erection of buildings along Lake Michigan won him the title of “The Watch Dog of the Lake Front.” At one time there were forty-six building projects planned in the park and he fought them all successfully, losing many influential friends along the way. Finally, just before his death in 1913 he won his final legal battle to forever keep the waterfront an open area. He was sixty nine years old.

The Tribune, no friend of Montgomery Ward, wrote: “We know now that Mr. Ward was right, was farsighted, was public spirited. That he was unjustly criticized as a selfish obstructionist or as a fanatic. Before he died, it is pleasant to think Mr. Ward knew that the community had swung round to his side and was grateful for the service he had performed in spite of misunderstanding and injustice.”

montgomery_ward_1902It was the men and women with unwavering belief in their ideas and innovations that broke ground for the rest of the country. Sears Roebuck and Bloomingdales followed with catalog merchandise, and to this day we still receive catalogs in the mail for seeds, lingerie, hunting gear, and all manner of merchandise.

When you think about it, ebay is a gigantic online catalog with auction sales. Amazon is an amazing online catalog of every book, song, movie etc. available—plus clothing, groceries and nonperishable items, electronics, and the list goes on to infinity. What would Mr. Ward have thought?

Craigslist is an online local catalog of the good things people are selling. Have I ever mentioned how much I love Craigslist? Take a photo, post a listing and the next day you have someone pay you to haul your unwanted stuff away. What a deal. I even order photo prints online. We all probably order books. I buy cabinet hardware, floor mats, office supplies, health and beauty items, luggage, vitamin supplements and protein shakes online, just for starters. So, how about you? How much shopping do you do from the convenience of your home?


Cheryl St. John is the author of more than fifty books, both historical and contemporary. Her stories have earned numerous RITA nominations, Romantic Times awards and are published in over a dozen languages. One thing all reviewers and readers agree on regarding Cheryl’s work is the degree of emotion and believability. Words like ‘heart-warming, emotional depth, touches your soul, tugs your heart, endearing characters and on my keeper shelf’ are commonly used to describe her work. With a 4.9 star rating on amazon, Cheryl’s bestselling non-fiction book, Writing With Emotion, Tension & Conflict by Writers Digest Books is available in print and digital.


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