Born on this day in 1842, in Chatham, New Jersey, Aaron Montgomery Ward was part of a large family with modest means. His father moved the family to Niles, Michigan when Monty was nine years old. As was the case with most young men at the time, the fourteen year old went to work to help in the support of the family. He began his career as an apprentice machinist in a chimney stave factory for only 25 cents a day.
In 1865, Ward moved to Chicago and began working as a traveling salesman and later became involved in retail work for a company which later would become the famous Marshall Fields Store. In his capacity as a salesman, he dealt with many rural town merchants, farmers and back country store owners, he became aware of the middleman cost of merchandising and how unfair it was to those with limited cash flow.
He saw the common man being taken advantage of by small town proprietors and felt that prices were being unfairly raised because of the difficulty in obtaining these goods. He saw a need to eliminate the middleman and came up with the idea of catalog sales. Soon merchants caught on to the same marketing tactic. Sears followed almost twenty years later than Ward. The free catalog would go out to farm families across the country and the could place their orders themselves and pick them up at the local train depot.
Today we have access to countless products on the internet, through Amazon and other online delivery services and we owe a debt to A. Montgomery Ward for his creative way of providing for that need. His catalog along with Webster’s Dictionary was rendered one of the most influential books having the greatest bearing on life and culture of the American people.
Ward passed away in 1913 after running the mail order company for 41 years. He became a strong presence in the Chicago area, making it possible for the Lake Michigan shoreline to be enjoyed by everyone. He vigorously opposed the building of large structures or buildings on what is now known as Grant Park.
Another story of Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurial action, Montgomery Wards soon became familiar throughout the country and was often referred to as Monkey Wards, a term of endearment or one of derisiveness. One of those American dream stories, we often lose sight of.