Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Biography of Aaron Montgomery Ward, founder of retail catalog sales.

Aaron Montgomery Ward
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1843, in Chatham, New Jersey. When he was about nine years old, his father Sylvester Ward moved the family to Niles, Michigan, where Aaron attended public schools. He was one of a large family with a modest income. When Aaron was fourteen, he was apprenticed to a trade to help support the family. According to his brief memoirs, he first earned 25¢ per day ($6.80 per day today) at a cutting machine in a barrel stave factory, and then stacking brick in a kiln at 30¢ a day.

Energy and ambition drove Ward to seek employment in the town of St. Joseph, Michigan, where he went to work in a shoe store. This was a market town for a farm area devoted to fruit orchards. Starting in sales eventually led him to the profession that made him famous. Being a fair salesman, within nine months he was engaged as a salesman in a general country store at $6/month plus room and board, a considerable salary at the time. He rose to become head clerk then general manager of the store, working there for three years. By the end of that time, his salary was $100/month including room and board. He left for a better job in a competing store, where he worked another two years. During this period, Ward learned retailing.

In 1865, Ward relocated to Chicago, where he worked for Case and Sobin, a lamp house. He traveled for them as salesman, and sold goods on commission for a short time. Chicago was the center of the wholesale dry-goods trade, and in the late 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 country. 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, he drastically cut the selling costs and could sell goods to people, however remote, at appealing prices. He invited them to send their orders by mail and he 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 in 1871, Ward persevered. In August 1872, with two fellow employees and a total capital of $1,600 ($33,890 today) he formed Montgomery Ward & Company. He rented a small shipping room and published a general merchandise mail-order catalog with 163 products listed which was dated August 18, 1872. Ward initially wrote all catalog copy. When the business grew and department heads wrote their own merchandise descriptions, Ward proofed 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, George Robinson 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 became a favorite in households all across America.
Ward's catalog soon was copied by other enterprising merchants, most notably Richard Warren Sears, who mailed his 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.

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.
Montgomery Ward & Co. building at 6 North Michigan Avenue, on the northwest corner of East Madison street.
Montgomery Ward’s “Busy Bee Hive” in 1899. The open-air observatory at the top of the tower was the highest point in Chicago.
In civic life in Chicago, Montgomery Ward fought to keep Chicago's lakefront “open, clear and free” and protect the public trust doctrine. In 1906 he campaigned to preserve Grant Park as a public park. Grant Park has been protected since 1836 by legislation that has been affirmed by four Illinois Supreme Court rulings. Ward twice sued the city of Chicago to force it to remove buildings and structures from Grant Park and to keep it from building new ones. Ward is known by some as the "watch dog of the lake front" for his preservationist efforts. As a result, the city has what are termed the Montgomery Ward restrictions on buildings and structures in Grant Park. Daniel Burnham's famous 1909 Plan of Chicago (pdf) eventually preserved Grant Park and the entire Chicago lakefront.

However, Crown Fountain and the 139-foot Jay Pritzker Pavilion were exempt from the height restriction because they were classified as works of art and not buildings or structures. 
Crown Fountain, Grant Park, Chicago
Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Grant Park, Chicago
The Montgomery Ward warehouse and administration building, at 600 West Chicago Avenue, along the north branch of the Chicago River was completed in 1908. This eight-story and basement building was one of the first large reinforced concrete buildings in Chicago of skeleton construction.
Montgomery Ward Complex 1907 Floor Plan.
Montgomery Ward warehouse and administration building on the Chicago River.
Montgomery Ward died in 1913, at the age of 70. His wife Elizabeth bequeathed a large portion of the estate to Northwestern University and other educational institutions.
Spirit of Progress on top of Ward’s Warehouse and Administration Building was installed in 1929 on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Larrabeee Street.
Montgomery Ward Plaza, the "26-story park" corporate headquarters, named "The Montgomery," at 535 West Chicago Avenue, featured uninterrupted office space between two marble-clad cores. It occupied only one-fourth of the 2.2 acre site.
The Montgomery Ward catalog secured its place in history when the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles in New York, exhibited it in 1946 alongside Webster's dictionary as one of the one-hundred books with the most influence on life and culture of the American people.

A bronze bust honoring Ward and seven other industry magnates stand between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, Illinois. A smaller version of that bust is located in Grant Park.
This 1972 bust of A. Montgomery Ward by stands in Grant Park in Chicago Illinois.
The Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners named a park in honor of A. Montgomery Ward. It is located at 630 North Kingsbury Street, a few blocks away from the old Montgomery Ward & Co. warehouse and adminstration Building at 600 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago.

Forbes magazine readers and editors ranked Aaron Montgomery Ward as the 16th-most influential businessman of all time.

Despite the collapse of its brick-and-mortar department stores in 2001, Montgomery Ward & Co. reopend as online retailer in 2004. Wards, still adheres to the once unheard philosophy of "satisfaction guaranteed."

Montgomery Ward Timeline.
1883: Company's 240-page catalog lists 10,000 items.

1928: Opens 244 stores. By 1929, it has 531 stores.

1931: Sewell Avery becomes CEO, correctly predicts the Depression but is convinced a recession will follow World War II.

1939: Advertising copywriter Robert L. May creates "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" for a poem to be handed out to children.

1945-1955: Avery refuses to open new stores. Company's sales shrink 10%, Sears' sales double.

1985: Company unveils specialty store strategy and discontinues catalog operations.

1991: Resumes mail-order catalog business, sells it in 1996.

1994: Montgomery Ward opens first Electric Avenue & More stores, acquires New England retail chain Lechmere.

1997: Company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

1998: In an attempt to revitalize the chain, company introduces new store format with new "Wards" moniker.

1999: GE Capital Services purchases Montgomery Ward, brings it out of bankruptcy.

2000: Montgomery Ward announces plan to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, shutter 250 stores in 30 states.

2001: Montgomery Ward closes.


2004: Montgomery Ward opens an online retail store.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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