If you’re like me, you are an Amazon Prime customer who does much of his or her shopping via the internet. Find an item, click it into my shopping cart, hit checkout, and usually, the next day, that item magically appears on my doorstep. Amazing, isn’t it?
But, before we had Amazon and curbside pick-up, yes, even before we had shopping malls, Americans in the late 1800’s relied on mail-order catalogs from stores like Montgomery Ward or Sears to purchase goods.
Which brings me to today’s post…
On Ebay, I found this delightful postcard from 1889. It’s postmarked in Chicago on May 15, addressed to M. H. Bailey, living at 214 Davenport Street in Iowa City. It looks like the handwriting wasn’t clear (there was a well-known lawyer named W. H. Bailey living in Iowa City as well) and the postmaster (possibly after trying to deliver to W.H.) wrote… “Try M.H.”
This penny postcard comes from the office of Montgomery Ward & Company, located at 111-114 Michigan Avenue (very near the Chicago Art Institute).
The good news – Montgomery Ward will be shipping M.H. Bailey’s order.
The bad news – his order will be delayed a few days … “until the furniture ordered can be made.”
None of us like delays in shipping, but in the 1880’s, waiting “a few days” for a shipment of new furniture probably didn’t frustrate the Baileys all that much. That’s because prior to Montgomery Ward opening his catalog company in Chicago, there was only one way for people living in rural areas like Iowa City to buy just about anything – a local merchant.
But now, the days of small shops with limited inventory and high prices are gone forever!
Historian Nick Lyons says this about Montgomery Ward and their amazing Wish Book catalogs…
At its zenith from the 1880s to the 1940s, Montgomery Ward, like its cross-town Chicago rival, Sears, sold virtually everything the average American could think of or desire – and by mail. This was a revolution, and Ward’s fired the first shot. To buy spittoons, books of gospel hymns, hat pins, rifles, wagons, violins, birdcages, or portable bathtubs, purchases that used to require many separate trips to specialist merchants, suddenly all the American shopper had to do was lick a stamp.
Montgomery Ward & Company was founded in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward, a 28-year old traveling dry goods salesman, who conceived the idea of a mail-order business after observing in his travels that rural customers often wanted “city” goods but their access to them was very limited. Ward believed that by eliminating intermediaries, he could cut costs and make a wide variety of goods available to rural customers, who could buy via the mail and pick up their orders at the nearest train station.
After several false starts, including the destruction of his first inventory by the Great Chicago Fire (October 1871), Ward and his two business partners raised $1,600, re-opened their warehouse above a livery stable on Chicago’s north side (see below), and issued their first catalog on August 27, 1872 – an 8″ × 12″ single-sheet flyer listing 163 items for sale via mail-order.
Admittedly, over the first few years, Ward’s business met with a much resistance, with rural retailers publicly burning his catalog. Things were looking pretty bleak until a partnership developed with the six-year old fraternal organization, The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. Because farmers trusted The Grange, when Ward used their mailing list to promote his new mail-order business, everything began to turn around.
With the help of RFD (Rural Free Delivery) and reduced postage costs on magazines, Montgomery Ward grew at a fast pace over the next several decades, fueled by rural customers who were inspired by the wide selection of items that were locally unavailable. Customers were also thrilled by the innovative company policy of “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” a policy Ward pioneered in 1875.
While, we don’t know what furniture Bailey ordered from the Montgomery Ward Wish Book, we do know where the furniture ended up.
Bailey family records show that both Matthew (1847) and Anna (1849) were born near Southampton, England, married there on October 12, 1871, and had their first child, Anna, before moving to Iowa City in March of 1873.
Sadly, Anna died at the young age of 48 in 1897, and Matthew passed at age 62 in 1909. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. We’re assuming the Montgomery Ward furniture was passed on to the kids!
In 1896, Wards encountered its first serious competition in the mail order business, when Richard Warren Sears introduced his first general catalog. In 1900, Wards had total sales of $8.7 million, compared to $10 million for Sears. By 1904, Wards had expanded to such a dregree that it mailed three million catalogs, weighing 4 lbs each, to customers.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to Aaron Montgomery Ward and his amazing mail-order business. While Wards, Sears, and others like them are pretty much gone today, Ward’s idea of easy shopping, big inventory, fair prices, fast delivery, and money-back guarantees still lives on!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.