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Vol. 9, No. 1
Jan. 4-10, 2001
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Farewell, Montgomery Ward
Without Its Catalog, It’s Never Been the Same

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.
—The Bible: Book of Ecclesiastes

he impending end of Montgomery Ward prompts skepticism in this writer, born at a time when the then giant mail-order house was commonly referred to as “Monkey Wards.”
When the not unexpected announcement came last week that all 250 stores and 10 distribution centers across the nation will shut down for good, the chain was known as Wards, the Montgomery having long been dropped. Only old timers remembered when the “Monkey” was substituted to save a few syllables — or perhaps because it sounded cute.
Among many, it was assumed Montgomery and Ward were two different entrepreneurs who joined forces (as with arch competitor Richard Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck) with the Montgomery interests later sold out, tossed out, died off or whatever. It’s not so.
Truth is the original name, Montgomery Ward, came from the one original founder. A traveling salesman in rural Michigan, Aaron Montgomery Ward set up a mail-order shop in a Chicago livery stable loft only three years after the transcontinental railroad was completed. To begin his enterprise, he had scraped up $2,400 in cash.
That was in August of 1872, some 23 years before Sears, Roebuck & Co. came on the scene, and Aaron — who evidently didn’t like his first name — issued his first catalog, which listed about 150 items that could be shipped directly to the homes of customers.
Old news reports indicate Aaron sensed among consumers a growing hostility toward profit-hungry middlemen. So he decided to cut out the guy in the middle. He’d buy wholesale products for cash, then sell them by mail. It was a formula that worked well into the mid 1900s, when catalogs had grown thicker than the big-city telephone books of today.

When Catalogs Came in Handy
And multi-purpose books they were, especially for country folk, many of whom didn’t have time or a dependable jalopy to get them to the big stores in the city — and who lived where indoor plumbing was the exception. Shopping lists, long and short, were made from the thumb-worn catalogs of Montgomery Ward or Sears & Roebuck.
Just about every rural home had both. Though some families preferred one mail-order house over the other, it was comparison shopping right from the kitchen table. Many thousands of items were not only listed but shown in pictures and drawings, shipping was cheap and exchange and refund procedures simple and satisfying: the sellers fully paid return mailing costs.
Until the new catalogs arrived, the current ones were stored in a secure place where they could be easily located when anything from nails, four-seater surreys and cultivators to corsets, trusses and auto batteries were needed. (At one time, from Sears & Roebuck a whole new six-room house could be ordered for $725.)
Frugal Sears and Wards customers had no problem disposing of the outdated catalogs. As new catalogs came into the kitchen, the old ones went into the outhouse where they served as reading material — and more.
If the family wasn’t too large, the well-over-1,000-page catalogs of Wards and Sears — several seasonal volumes a year from both — supplied households with enough tissue to spare the cost of 10-cent rolls of the same. Recycling at its finest.
Within 40 or 50 years after indoor plumbing became more available in rural areas, Montgomery Ward became the first to make the switch from mail order to stores only, locating many in malls or shopping centers. In August of 1985, the company announced that in the following December it was sending out its last catalog. Not too long thereafter, Sears followed suit. Outhouses and general merchandise catalogs became obsolete.

The Price Was Right
The passing of the traditional catalog era is still mourned by many. The selection options were virtually endless, and unlike within the glossy colored pages of the specialty catalogs we’re inundated with today, the price was right. Guaranteed to be the lowest; if not, just return the item.
When ordering from the old catalogs, a shopper could figure on saving money — even with mailing costs — and all in one single recyclable book. Rarely was a shopper informed by return mail that an ordered item was out of stock.
As a youngster on a New England farm, for some obscure reason I preferred Montgomery Ward — probably because within the pages of its catalog I discovered during the Great Depression that I could buy a baseball cap for 20 cents. In Sears’ book, the price was 25 cents. With Montgomery Ward, I saved a nickel of the money I earned from Benny Steere for hoeing corn the previous summer.
Something else endeared Wards to me. When I was 13, Wards introduced to the world of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I was, of course, too old in 1939 to believe in Santa, Dasher, Prancer, Donner and others in the harness of the sleigh. But the new reindeer cartoon character made for lively and catchy Christmas reading back in the bleak times when the holiday wasn’t as festive and opulent as today.
Rudolph was the brainstorm of a Montgomery Ward advertising copywriter. Millions of copies of the flyer introducing the red-nosed buck were passed out, and cowboy hero Gene Autrey assured lasting popularity among young and old when he recorded the story in a song we still hear often during the holiday season.
Regardless of my preference, its bargain price in baseball caps (which were worn with the visor in front), the popularity of Rudolph and the slogan “Satisfaction Guaranteed,” Montgomery Ward was never able to regain the lead over its younger rival.

Sears No. 117
Sears didn’t enter the scene until 1895, but within a decade it outsold Wards. By 1908, its 40-acre Chicago headquarters was the largest mercantile plant in the world. Its capital stock was $40 million, and its Catalogue No. 117 was more than 1,200 pages, thick enough that it was used as a cushion on countless kitchen chairs to seat a youngster high enough to dine comfortably.
What an issue No. 117 was. What prices. A Beckwith piano organ, $68; New England hammerless double-barreled shotgun, $8.95; a hundred shells for $1.49; a Victoria designed couch, $7.95; a two-seater horse-drawn carriage, $25.95; men’s suits, $4.95; 14-foot clinker boat, $17.50; split bamboo fly rod, 72 cents; and heavy canvas gloves at 6 cents a pair.
In that issue, there was also the notice that trappers could send their raw pelts to Chicago headquarters. Sears would auction them off to fur dealers and send to the trapper the full price paid: a free service “soley for your accommodation.”

The End
The prices will never be the same, nor will the service, and for years, Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck haven’t been the same. Their catalogues are long gone. Traditional mail order is pretty much replaced by slick promotional gimmicks in skinny catalogues. Shoppers flock to shopping centers that before long won’t have Wards among their tenants.
Methinks the end is not better than the beginning. Enough said.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly