Cheryl St.John: Mail Order Merchandise

montgomery-ward-catalogThe Montgomery Ward catalog has been called one of the most influential American books ever published. One such nominating committee, 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 and his family went west to Niles, Michigan in 1853 where his father took up the cobbler”s trade. Aaron left school at 14 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.”

After clerking at a shoe store and then a country store, earning $6 a month,
plus board, Ward was then ready to go to the big city. At that time Chicago was home to 30,000 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 muck.

ward-picBut 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 a whopping $12 a week.

As he made tedious rounds through the mud in his horse and buggy, he took particular notice of the country stores along his route. They were gathering places with potbelly stoves and moonlighted as meeting places for local farmers. However these outlets were far from helpful when the farmers had to actually buy something. Selections were small and prices high. Storekeepers were at the mercy of big-city wholesalers.

After considering how he could help the disadvantaged farmer, Ward decided on a mail order store. He planned to set up in the big city where he could easily reach suppliers and buy in quantity to get the best prices. He could send a catalog listing his prices to farmers who could order and receive their items 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-catalogueWard worked and saved. He talked about his idea with friends and associates. They all agreed he would go broke trying to sell goods sight-unseen to back country folk. He was not dissuaded. By 1871 he finally saved enough money to buy a small amount of goods at wholesale prices. On October 8, 1871 the Great Chicago Fire engulfed the city for 30 hours. Every building in a 4-square mile area was destroyed. So was Ward”s inventory.

Ward went back to work. By August 1872 he scraped up money and convinced a few people to join him, raising $1600 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 price lists contained 163 items under the banner Supplied By The Cheapest Cash House In America. Most of the items cost one dollar, including clothing, a 6-view stereoscope, and a backgammon set.

wards-corsetFor most of 1873, Ward”s mailbox was bare. 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 quickly sunk even the established traditional retailers.

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. The accepted belief was that no two people had the same measurements; therefore tailors were needed to make quality garments. 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 wrote all the early copy. He always included a message in his catalogs, often giving money-saving tips. “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.”

wards-hatsConsumers came to trust Ward”s unseen store, and business grew rapidly. He bound his first catalog in 1874, and in 1875 the book expanded to seventy-two pages. Worrying that he might become too big, Ward 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.

ward1892The 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’s amazing to think he was the forerunner for all the mail order catalogues that would follow, and that shopping by mail would become commonplace. Imagine what Mr. Ward would think of telemarketing or the incredible world of ebay!


Quite honestly, I make most of my book purchases online, plus a great many other things, from toys to cabinet hardware. The most awesome things I’ve purchased online recently are reproduction Jadeite cabinet knobs and glass handles and a really cool neck and shoulder heating pad stuffed with flaxseed. Received any interesting deliveries in the mail lately?stjohn.jpg



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

  1. Hi Cher, what a wonderful post! I always loved Ward’s and was dreadfully sorry when it went under. I still have several never-go-out-of-style sweaters I bought there that still get compliments when I wear them.

    I heard once that his catalog was the first real “coffee table” book. Folks entertained themselves looking through it and had wish lists of what they would buy if they could.

    Our most intersting delivery was Pam’s adorable “glam gloves!” Loved this post. oxoxoxox

  2. Cheryl, I so clearly remember the Christmas catalogue coming when I was a kid. Wasn’t it called The Wish Book? Penney’s maybe?

    My seven brothers and sisters and I would just pour over that thing, drooling and wanting and circling and begging.
    I can’t remember ever GETTING much of anything but oh the fun of wishing.
    It was a big splashy beginning to the season. I think it came after Thanksgiving.

    Now it’d probably come right after The Fourth of July. 🙂

  3. Hi Cheryl,

    I rememeber how excited I was to get a new Montgomery Ward catalog in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. It was with much anticipation to get a new one each year and seeing all the neat things in it. I can only imagine the excitement for settlers to have access to a catalog. I’m sure it was like Christmas coming. I quit getting the catalogs when they decided to start charging for them. Ruined everything.

    I still order many things online. Recently I bought a new filter for my vacuum cleaner. Couldn’t find one in the stores. I was excited to find one online. I also buy lots of books online. I honestly don’t know what I did before the computer came along!

    Loved your blog! It brought back lots of memories.

  4. Hi Cheryl,

    Great Post. I vaguely remember the catalog. I remember at Christmas my grandmother would have the catalog but of course the children could not touch it.

    This brought back alot of memories

    Loved your post


  5. Hi Cheryl!

    Terrific post! And I always thought that the Sears Catalog was the first catalog in our history. What a vision this man had — many of my purchases are done by catalog still or online or by telephone. The catalog brought so much to those out of the way places where you couldn’t get goods at a good price.

    Thank goodness people by Ward lived. Interesting how one man alone can influence so much. There are those who would like one to believe that one man can’t do much, whereas the opposite is true.

    It’s always the individual who is far-reaching and clever — never the group, who falls back usually on what’s tried and true. We are all better because this man lived. : )

  6. Chiming in again. I watched a History Channel show once on Sears and Roebuck…when their first catalog came out, they made it smaller because they figured folks would place it on top of the Ward’s one, and therefore it would get more attention.

  7. Linda, it is amazing what we can find online without a long hunt and a hundred phone calls. When my microwave heating pad got torched by a now-unpopular family member *G* I found one on etsy .com and I love this baby. It drapes around my neck and shoulders, or I can use it for my back or feet. They also have footwarmers that are really calling my name. I’ll probably think about it before winter.

    Here’s a link:

  8. MW & S/R were studied really hard (especially the Christmas ones) to decide which toys we really wanted or which Easter dress we liked best. After the final choice was made it would be a big disappointment if we got a refund because it was out of stock.

    Live plants are the most adventurous things I have ever ordered by mail. I had to plant them in the mud when they arrived because we were leaving for a few days when they finally got to me.

    Very interesting post.

  9. I had a 1912 or thereabouts MW catalog at my library, and I was amazed at the prices! Much less all the things you could buy thru the mail! I used to eagerly await the Sears Xmas book every year, it was the thing. Heard today, on the radio our local Sears is closing its doors, sad.

  10. Hi Cher – Oh, I’d heard the Sears had started to call Mongomery Wards, Monkey Wards and that’s how that old addage came to be. It was a way of disparaging them. I wondeer if that’s true. As kids, we all called it Monkey Wards, but in a fun-loving way because we all shopped there.

    And we STILL have $1 stores!!

    I love online shopping!!

  11. Animals are shipped in the mail all the time. My daughter received chicks. She and my husband work at the post office. People bring in roosters to mail all the time. Tadpoles and fish are shipped also.

  12. In Canada growing up, we had three major Department stores, Eaton’s,, The Bay and Simpson’s, which the latter became Simpson-Sears of your Sears & Roebuck and then just Sears. Both of these stores had great catalogues and of course we love their Christmas edition’s. Eventually the Eaton stores were bought out by The Hudson Bay chain, but they never had a catalogue. So Sears is still the biggest Catalogue company in Canada. There are lots of online catalogue companies that are now offered, but I don’t do a lot of on-line shopping, except for my books..
    Great info on Montgomery Ward.. I have heard of it of course, but never seen it..

  13. What a great post, Cher! I remember Mom talking about how important the Ward’s catalogue was in their family–how all the kids would gather round and look and wish for things. I’m sure her parents, did, too. And when I read about him losing his inventory in the fire, my heart just dropped. Can you imagine having such a dream and trying your hardest to get it going and then to have it all burn up? I admire him for not just giving up right then. Wonderful post–I loved reading about this!

  14. Ah, Cheryl, what great memories you brought to mind with this post. Living in small town America, a lot of what we bought came from the Monkey Ward catalogue.( This was our special name for it.) The Christmas Wish Book was how we picked out ONE special thing we wanted under our tree.

    One of my best memories and my worst of ordering from the catalogue was the year I was a freshman in high school. At that time girls still wore dresses and for the first time ever I was to get two store bought dresses from the catalogue. My mother had always made our clothes and I always felt that the ‘homemade’ was printed on them. My mother picked one and I got to pick the other. I was sure that I would never wear the one my mother picked but guess what it was my favorite!

    Years later when I had girls of my own I realized that my dresses weren’t homemade. They were HANDMADE with loving hands. I was very ashamed of my attitude back when my mother made all of us girls’ clothes.

    Then I attempted jeans!!! Then I knew why my brother’s always had store bought!

  15. Good timing for this question. We just got a $200+ xbox delivered to our house. Problem was, I didn’t order it. I can’t figure out the scam that would order it (online I was told) but then deliver it (along with the bill) to me!!! I have spent 2 hrs. on the phone trying to settle this and was told they would pick it up but although they said it would be picked up by now, it’s still here. What a pain!

  16. Both the Wards and Sears catalogues came to our house when we were kids. The hours we spent pouring over those books, especially the Christmas catalogues.
    Patricia B.’s comment about chicks in the mail reminded me of our local Post Office. Tuesdays in the spring you could always hear cheaping as you did business there. That was the day a local hatchery shipped baby chicks to its many customers.

  17. Hi Cheryl, what a great post. I loved shopping in the brick and mortar Ward’s and was so sad when it went under, America’s first large retailer, I think. I remember somewhere that when Sears & Roebuck started to do catalogs, they published theirs smaller so folks would set it atop the Ward’s one and look at it first, hence order from it first LOL.

    When the kids were small I ordered tons from the Sears catalog. Their clothes were cute and fit my kids just right. And those Toughskin jeans for little boys were indestructible.

    I actually did receive a cool mail order last week. I’d found some sandals at Kohls I couldn’t live without in the store, and found two more colors online. Yippee.

    Thanks for lots of memories today, Cher! xo

  18. Thanks for an interesting post. The Sears catalogue is usually mentioned, and I didn’t realize Mr. Ward’s efforts were first. He certainly was persistent. To save for so long, invest, and then lose it all in a fire, most people would have given up. His campaign to save the Chicago Waterfront is admirable. It takes a person of foresight and persistence to be able to accomplish something like that.

    I pretty much stick to ordering books, movies, and CD’s on line. I have tried clothes and jewelry, but have not brrn pleased with the products I received.

  19. As a child, I loved going through the catalog and in my head deciding what I would get.
    Had never read the story of Montgomery Ward before. Interesting!
    About the only thing I buy through the mail is books.

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