Cheryl St.John: Mail Order Merchandise

How many of you ordered at least a few of your Christmas gifts online? It’s really the easiest way to shop, isn’t it? No crowds, no icy parking lots. You have the world of items at your fingertips and they can be delivered overnight if you’re willing to pay. Our forefathers couldn’t have dreamed of the ease with which we shop today. Meat, milk, fresh fruits and vegetables are a few blocks away. Clothing is ready to wear and in every size imaginable. We are a spoiled generation, and I don’t know about you, but I’m loving it.


Even as early as the 1800s one savvy businessman was thinking up a way to take merchandise to people across the country. The Montgomery Ward catalog is known as one of the most influential American books ever published. The Grolier Club stated: “The mail order catalogue 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.”


Aaron 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’s 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 nay sayers 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.


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.”


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.


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.”


It 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 catalogue merchandise, and to this day we all receive catalogs in the mail for seeds and 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, CD, DVD etc. available! 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 junk away. What a deal!


I even ordered prints of photos online and am waiting for an email to tell me they’re ready to pick up. My other packages have all arrived, and I did very little real world shopping this year. How about you? Did you place any catalog orders?




My exciting news is that HER MONTANA MAN is featured in the Doubleday and Rhapsody Book Clubs this month in hardcover! Yee haw!

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29 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: Mail Order Merchandise”

  1. ya gotta love this convenience!! LOL

    I didnt order alot this Christmas-but did order a few things from a catalog that I order from every year! I just love getting a new one and being able to sit down alone and enjoy looking through the pages!!!!

    I tell ya, it sure beats the crowds you have to fight at every turn in all the stores this time of year!!!

  2. I did almost all my shopping online. I get a stack of catalogs from all kinds of interesting places and love finding odd or unusual gifts for folks. 😉

    What little in-store shopping I’ve done was over a month ago at a great sale. I’ve been lucky with the sales this year. 🙂

  3. We did almost all of our shopping online this year other than a few items that we wanted to pick out where we could see them on display up close first.

    Most of the online orders were through Amazon or The Lakeside Collection.

    Six years ago when I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter we went to Wal-mart and it wasn’t Black Friday, but the crowds made me claustrophobic and it seemed no one cared that I was pregnant- they just ran me over to get to what they wanted. After that, I lost my love of going to the store to do Christmas shopping. Makes me want to hyperventilate just thinking about it. LOL

    I think Montgomery Ward would be surprised just how far “catalog” shopping has come thanks to technology.

  4. You hit the bullseye this time, Cheryl. I’m an online shopping addict. I avoid the malls and do most of my Christmas shopping on the net. There is a downside. Since the computer is always there, I spend WAY too much time and $$ browsing. But what bargains!
    Great blog and pictures. I have a couple miniature copies of early Sears Roebuck catalogs. Handy for research.
    Happy Holidays!

  5. Cheryl,

    What a fascinating article. I am a huge catalog shopper. Unfortunately, that means I get about ten a day in the mail. PHEW!

    Oh, and hey, MAJOR congrats on your Rhapsody good news. I’m sooooo proud of you!

    Merry Christmas!

  6. Good morning ladies! I do appreciate the convenience of ordering anything I want or need from the comfort of my desk.

    Today I’m drinking cinnamon apple spice tea and working on my new story, which I’m in LOVE with. It’s called Her Make Believe Husband for now, and I haven’t enjoyed a story this much for a long time. I love it when that happens.

    It’s frigidly cold in Nebraska, and we’re expecting an ice storm this afternoon, so I’m appreciating my job more than ususal. We went out to buy something posted in the want ads last night, and saw the reality of rush hour traffic up close. I’m always thankful that’s not my calling.

    By the way I got an entire set of Hall’s Autumn Leaves mixing bowls in perfect condition for a STEAL! (The old Jewel Tea line.)

  7. I too admit that I am an online shopping addict. I buy almost all of my daughters clothes on eBay and then turn around and sell them again on eBay…so that I can buy her more clothes on eBay. I also like Amazon, Half, and Craigslist. I do a LOT of my shopping online. I love it.

    Congrats on the book! I read Her Montana Man earlier this week! It was awesome! I really liked the cover too!

  8. Congrats on Her Montana Man, Cheryl. What great news! I can’t wait to read it.

    I loved this post. I loved the Montgomery Ward actual stores, too and was sad when the chain folded. (Like about ten other stores here in California!) I remember reading that Sears and Roebuck made their catalog smaller so it had to sit atop the Ward catalog, therefore first looked at. They were the coffee table books of their day LOL.

    I do some online shopping…all the bedspreads in the house came that way LOL and I often get vet prescriptions that way too. I am not a real e-bay or Craigslist user…yet! And I rarely buy clothes that way as I love to try things on.

  9. Hi Cher – It was a sad day when Montgomery Ward closed its doors, mainly because I knew about the history behind it. Did you ever hear the expression “Monkey Wards”? I’ve always used it as an endearment, but I read that Sears, way back when, spread the slur around to discredit their competitor.

    I did 50% of my shopping online. I was pleasantly surprised when everything came before expected and in good shape. The big draw this year for me was Free Shipping. That’s what has held me back in the past, but with no tax and Free shipping, it’s a great deal!

    Great research on your Blog. And HER MONTANA MAN is a wonderful read!!

  10. We used to shop at “Monkey Wards” all the time – and yup – we called it that, too! Interesting, if it’s true that Sears started that nickname, LOL.

    And I also loved Her Montana Man. Thanks for so many wonderful books!

  11. Love online shopping! About 2/3 of my shopping this
    Christmas was done online. My MIL turned me onto
    catalog shopping some 46 years ago, neither of us
    liked going shopping! Sears, Montgomery Ward, and
    J.C. Penney were our favorites. Today’s favorites
    are Amazon, ebay, Wal-Mart, Target, and many more!

    Pat Cochran

  12. I love looking at those old Montgomery Ward catalogs and seeing how cheap the prices were. Just amazing. I wish we had those prices in this day and age.

    For the first time in a few years I didn’t buy anything online. I braved the crowds and went to the stores. Not a lot of fun, but most stores had such good bargains it paid to shop there. And I didn’t have to pay for shipping, which is outrageous.

    Congrats on getting your book in both book clubs. It’s exciting to see it in hardcover. Have you ordered some copies yet? When you join the bookclubs you get six or seven books for a very low introductory price and you can even get all of your selections the same book if you want. A really good deal.

    Merry Christmas, Cheryl!

  13. I hardly ever shop online, but I have done some trading online. The One Red Paperclip Trading forum seems to have disappeared from the internet, though, but there are also a couple of Finnish trading blogs and forums where I have been able to trade some useless stuff for something useful. One person’s trash is after all another person’s treasure.

  14. I did a LOT of shopping online. Although Gas has come down a lot, still the time and cost of driving to a store, plus the patience it requires to face the parking lots and crowds, make the shipping charges very easy to handle.

    I am really getting so I love it. Pick something out, click on it — LOVE Paypal especially and I always use it when it’s an option. Send it where ever, either to me or the recipient.

    I bought flowers for two sick friends. Pears. Gifts for my children. Gift cards for people I couldn’t decide on.

    I LOVE IT.

  15. And I love stories of ‘the guy who biuld a better mousetrap.’

    Often times when you see someone who is really, really insanely wealthy…outside of the rich guys who hand down their money…you’ll find a pioneer.

    Ward — Mail Order Catalogues…brilliant
    Henry Ford — Assembly Lines
    Steve Jobs — Personal Computers
    Bill Gates — Standardized computer software.
    Ray Kroc — McDonalds — Fast Food
    Ted Turner — made Cable TV viable
    Rush Limbaugh — Proved national talk radio could succeed.
    Now we have the Yahoo guys, the Google guys, the Amazon guys.

    The ones who come first and succeed, even if they weren’t the first with the idea, all end up fabulously wealthy and they should because they built a better mousetrap.

  16. Sears and Montgomer Wards catalogs were always looked forward to when I was growing up. The Christmas editions were all marked up with what we desired.
    As a side note – Many people recycled the catalogs in the outhouses. Even though we had an outhouse, my family used real toilet paper. 🙂

  17. Good afternoon! I’m delighted to hear how many of you have read Her Montana Man! It gets me stoked for the book I’m working on right now.

    When I proposed and sold it I just sort of faked the research, and now it’s like OH CRAP I have to know this stuff! LOL So I’ve been online checking out my facts.

    We were supposed to have an ice storm tday, and now they’ve delayed it unti after 6pm. Probably won’t have school tomorrow. That means I have more writing time with not driving back and forth, believe it or not. My boy is so self-sufficient that I have to ASK him if he needs anything. I predict a Lego masterpiece in his very near future. Elijah just loves playing Legos in his room. He’s sings and the sound carries out to my office.

  18. I love to on-line shop of course with Disney the most I just placed a order a little while ago too. I still use the Jc Penny’s catalog too.
    I can’t wait to read your book I have it I ordered on line when you first told us about it so now I just have to have time to read a little. I don’t have all my shopping done, no cards done I am so far behind it is not funny. I hope we get the day off tomorrow I need it and if it is icy I am not chancing going to work.
    Oh yeah ebay I get hooked on that one a lot.

  19. Cheryl, I really enjoyed reading this blog. Cataloge shopping was big in my growing up years. When clearing my mother-in-law’s home we found several really old catalogs, including a Goodies. Very interesting.

    I finished Her Montana Man earlier this week. Wonderful!

  20. I just haven’t gotten into buying online. I like to browse and touch and feel and see the size lol. My daughter and son-in-law do most of their shopping that way and since they both work and live in an apartment all the packages come to my house. I think the UPS guy woke me up every day last week lol.

  21. Cher, I loved your post! I’m grateful Ward fought to perserve Chicago’s lake front. I have a copy of the 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue. It’s a great resource for writing historicals.

    Congrats on getting the Autumn Leaf mixing bowls for a steal. I have a collection of Hall’s Rose Parade.

    Mega congratulations on Her Montana Man being featured at Doubleday and Rhapsody Book Clubs in hard cover!!!

  22. Hi Cheryl. I saw your hardcover on Rhapsody book club today! I was visiting there and saw it. I didn’t realize it was yet because I didn’t see it up on Amazon. It would be a January release with Harlequin right? I’m so thrilled for you on the single title! There’s something about books set in Montana that I always can visualize so clearly when reading but I’ve never been there. Its one place tho I’d love to go. I look forward to getting yours I hope soon and getting to read this setting again!

    Since we exchange one gift here at Christmas, I too add a book in for my two children. As they’ve been little til now as young adults, they know I love to sneak in a book or two with their gifts and they been hinting to me titles for a few weeks now. Those I always order online because I can easily get and have sent together. Too with only one car now and hubby using it for work, I rarely get to get out. I usually get specials, bedding, and books online! When it comes to clothes I do that within the stores. So its both ways for me!

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