Aaron Montgomery Ward (February 17, 1844 - December 7, 1913) was an American businessman notable for the invention of mail order, which he started in 1872 in Chicago. Ward, a young traveling salesman of dry goods, was concerned over the plight of many rural Midwest Americans who he thought were being overcharged and under-served by many of the small town retailers on whom they had to rely for their general merchandise. Ward's idea ultimately cut out the "middle man” and saved the ordinary customer a great deal of money. He instituted an all cash business which allowed for no consumer cost returns.
Ward did not limit his championing for the poor to the retail industry; he fought for community access to Chicago's lakefront. In 1906 he campaigned to preserve Grant Park as a public park. Daniel Burnham's famous 1909 Burnham Plan eventually preserved Grant Park and the entire Chicago lakefront.
Aaron Montgomery Ward was born on February 17, 1844, 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, 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.
Energy and ambition drove him to seek employment in the town of St. Joseph, a market for outlying fruit orchards, where he 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.
Field Palmer & Leiter Years
In 1865 Ward moved to Chicago to further pursue his business career. 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 "let the buyer beware" 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.
Montgomery Ward & Company Years
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 of 1872, with two fellow employees and a total capital of $1,600, he formed Montgomery Ward & Company. 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.
Ward's catalog soon was copied by other enterprising merchants, most notably Richard W. 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. Although today the Sears Tower in Chicago is the United States 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.
Montgomery Ward died in 1913, at the age of 69. His wife bequeathed a large portion of the estate to Northwestern University and other educational institutions. Despite the collapse of its catalog and department stores in 2001, Montgomery Ward & Co. still adheres to the once unheard philosophy of "satisfaction guaranteed" as an online retailer.
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 the hundred books with the most influence on life and culture of the American people.
Bronze busts honoring Ward and seven other industry magnates stand between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, Illinois.
- Goodman, Douglas J., and Mirelle Cohen. Consumer culture: a reference handbook. Contemporary world issues. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2004. ISBN 1576079759
- Herndon, Booton. Satisfaction guaranteed: an unconventional report to today's consumers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972. ISBN 9780070283503
- Macmillan Library Reference USA. Tycoons and entrepreneurs. Macmillan profiles. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1998. ISBN 9780028649825
All links retrieved October 19, 2018.