Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogs Brought Marketplace to American Farmsteads

Early retailer focused on rural residents by mailing Montgomery Ward catalogs, which offered thousands of items.

| July 2016

  • Aaron Montgomery Ward, founder of Montgomery Ward & Co.
    From Farm Collector archives
  • In this fanciful illustration, the 19-story Montgomery Ward & Co. building was termed “a busy bee hive.” In 1899, the 394-foot tall building was Chicago’s tallest.
    Image courtesy Montgomery Ward & Co.
  • An ad for a buggy in the 1915 Montgomery Ward catalog shows the breadth of the company’s offering.
    Image courtesy Montgomery Ward & Co.
  • Montgomery Ward & Co. sold kit homes through its Wardway Homes line.
    Image courtesy Montgomery Ward & Co.
  • Among the most popular characters ever created through advertising is Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Created by copywriter Robert L. May, Rudolph was part of a Ward’s promotion launched in 1939.
    Image courtesy Montgomery Ward & Co.

When Montgomery Ward & Co. put out its first mail order catalog in 1872, it was the first mail order catalog in the U.S.

Aaron Montgomery Ward was a traveling salesman in northern Illinois. He found that rural customers often wanted “citified” goods, but when they found them at local, rural establishments, they were both more expensive and often of lower quality. Sensing a market, Ward launched a mail order business for dry goods. By eliminating the middleman, he created savings for his customers. Orders were shipped by rail to the nearest train depot.

In late 1870 or early 1871, Ward – then based in Chicago – purchased a line of goods to sell, but his entire inventory was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871. Not to be deterred, he and two partners raised $1,600 and purchased new stock in 1872. In August 1872, they issued the first Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog, consisting of 163 items listed on one printed page.

It was a difficult time in which to launch a new business. In the wake of a global economic depression (the Panic of 1873), Ward’s partners bailed out. And more than a few rural retailers, seeing him as unwelcome competition, destroyed his catalogs when possible.

Revolutionary guarantee

But Ward’s brother-in-law, George Robinson Thorne, saw an opportunity and joined him in the fledgling enterprise. Meeting rural residents’ need for affordably priced, quality dry goods, the company began to grow rapidly. Ward continued to expand his offering. In 1875, he staked his claim on quality, adding a guarantee of “satisfaction or your money back.”

In 1883, the Montgomery Ward catalog – by then commonly referred to as “the wish book” – contained 10,000 items on 240 pages. Ward’s supplied necessities, but also offered many a farmer and his family items to dream about. The catalog helped reduce the isolation felt by many rural residents, and led to a less austere existence for those who lived far from the city.


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