Friday, May 1, 2015

Postcards, Paper Ephemera, Misc. – Montgomery Ward

As I mentioned in my posting on 4/20/15, I planned one more edition about Montgomery Ward memorabilia…this time primarily focused on postcards and paper related ephemera…

This is the front and the back of an advertising card issued in conjunction with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition which was held in Chicago.  The picture is of the Agricultural Building, which is appropriate because of the ties between farms and the Montgomery Ward Mail Order operations.

Montgomery Ward was founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872.  After a number of years working as a traveling salesman in rural areas, Ward conceived the idea of a dry goods mail-order based business in Chicago Illinois.  He’d noted that rural customers often wanted "city" goods but their only access to them was through rural retailers who had little competition price-wise and offered no guarantee of quality.  He believed that by eliminating the middle man, he could cut pricing while making a wide variety of goods available to rural customers.  They could purchase goods via the US Mail and then pick them up at the nearest train station.

I really love the classy old stationary…and the handwriting on the envelope.  This letter is dated 1900.  Barnes Corners New York is just a little southeast of Watertown in the northern part of the state.  I have no idea what a Thornyard Dandy No. 4 is, although it sounds like some kind of camera… The building pictured on the stationary was Montgomery Ward’s headquarters prior to 1907 when new facilities were built. 

This very collectible advertising card announcing the publication of Montgomery Ward’s latest catalog is a snapshot of the times in which it was printed, that’s for sure…

In the Company’s first few years, the business wasn’t well received by rural retailers.  They considered Montgomery Ward a major threat and sometimes they publicly burned the catalog.  Despite opposition the business grew quickly over the next several decades.  Growth was primarily fueled by demand from rural customers who were attracted by the broad selection of items that they couldn’t purchase locally.  Customers were also attracted by the unprecedented company policy of "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" that Ward initiated in 1875.

This postcard was sent to Sadie Tunk in Jewett New York in 1906.  Montgomery Ward's Headquarters moved to its new location only 1 year later.  Incidentally, if you can’t read the message, Hattie is asking Sadie if she could “send Mother’s shawl” before coming over.  Based on the multiple postmarks, this card was sent to Sadie from ‘Island’ New York…

The 3 preceding postcards are a bit confusing to me… They’re all pictures of Montgomery Ward’s new (1907) corporate headquarters on Chicago Avenue at the Chicago River and the company’s gigantic adjoining catalog warehouse with 1,250,000 sq. ft. of space.  The first postcard depicts a giant tower, the second doesn’t show any tower and the third shows a more modest tower…

The first postcard is dated 1909 so it’s the earliest… The second postcard is dated 1915 and the building looks much like the version I knew when I worked there.  The last version is undated. 

I love the boats and ships alongside the warehouse in the last postcard.  The second and third cards both show trolley’s and horse drawn carriages and wagons in use.  The message to Ben (Virginia Minnesota) on the first card is from Harry…and he tells Ben to “send 25 c to pay postage and they will send you one of their enormous catalogs.”  Harry goes on to say that “There are a lot of immigrants here and some entirely new and unknown types to me”.        

Montgomery Ward was an international company… The two envelopes pictured above were sent to the corporate offices from Jamaica and Nigeria in 1924.  

I didn’t know that Aaron Montgomery Ward once had this ‘cottage’ up in Oconomowoc Wisconsin.  This town is just a bit west of Milwaukee.  In the 1870s, Oconomowoc became a summer resort-town for wealthy families from across the Midwest.  Large ‘cottages’ like this one were soon established around the town's lakes, particularly Oconomowoc Lake and Lac La Belle.

In his civic life in Chicago, Ward fought for poor people's access to Chicago's lakefront.  In 1906 he campaigned to preserve Grant Park on Lake Michigan as a public park.  Grant Park has been protected since 1836 by "forever open, clear and free" legislation that has been affirmed by four Illinois Supreme Court rulings.  Ward twice sued the city of Chicago to force it to remove buildings and structures from Grant Park and to keep it from building new ones.  Ward is known by some as the "watch dog of the lake front" for his preservationist efforts.  Daniel Burnham's famous 1909 Burnham Plan eventually preserved Grant Park and the entire Chicago lakefront, perhaps the most striking feature of that city.

Retailers are always trying to promote their customer service.  This pin from 1938 was probably worn by company employees. 

In 1926, the company had broken with its mail-order-only tradition when it opened its first retail outlet store in Plymouth, Indiana.  It continued to operate its catalog business while pursuing an aggressive campaign to build retail outlets in the late-1920s.  In 1928, two years after opening its first outlet, the company had opened 244 stores.  By 1929, the number of brick and mortar stores had more than doubled to 531.

This postcard depicting downtown Fort Scott Kansas features a Montgomery Ward Store at the left. 

In the 1950s the company was slow to respond to the general movement of the American middle class to suburbia.  While its former rivals Sears, JC Penney, Macy's, Gimbel’s, and Dillard's established new anchor outlets in the growing number of suburban shopping malls, Montgomery Ward’s top management were  reluctant to pursue such expansion.  They stuck to their downtown and main street stores until the company had lost much of its market share to its rivals.

This advertising postcard was sent to Mrs. Carl Seiche in Sandusky Ohio.  It informed her that her “Fall and Winter 1945 Montgomery Ward Catalog” was waiting for her in the Catalog Department of her local store.  Very elegantly dressed model, don’t you think?  World War II had ended only 4 months earlier…

I’m not sure just what this medallion was used for or just how old it is.  The fact that you could mail it to Montgomery Ward’s “Key Registration Center” reminds me of some old hotel room keys, where you could mail it back to the hotel if you forgot to turn it in when you checked out.  I’m guessing that this medallion and related key tied into some product that required a key to operate…

The company went through several ups and downs in the 1960s and beyond.  The reasons for its eventual demise were numerous.  In December of 2000, following a bout of management turnover and the company’s growing irrelevancy in the changing retail marketplace, Montgomery Ward and General Electric, Ward’s parent company at the time, declared that the retailer was going out of business.  I was there for that sad event, personally leaving the company in March of 2001. 

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by to check out a bit of retailing history!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. I would wear that suit from the 1950's today, it is lovely!

  2. Thanks for the MW info. Sounds like he was ahead of his time then mgmt fell behind the times = gone.

  3. Received the following feedback via email from Kelly B. "The key chain was a lost and found Montgomery Ward program. If you lost your keys they could be mailed to Montgomery Ward and directed back to you using the identification number on the back of the medallion."

  4. Interesting post, Dave! Love the postcards and nice stationery, and the key chain info too. The model looks very chic. Too bad about the demise of MW, with the changing retail market. Take care

  5. I’m going back through your past posts. I really enjoyed your posts on Montgomery Ward and your memorabilia. I have things like this from my company too – model airplanes, aircraft pictures, tee-shirts, baseball caps, etc. I don’t know what I’ll do with them but it’s hard to give them away. I also like to look at all the good food you eat – I have included more about the places wehere stop by for meals since I’ve been reading your blog.
    Your breakfast creations are very creative. My husband does not cook anything anymore (he never cooked much before) so I’m the one who does all the cooking. When we go out his favorite breakfast always includes hash and potatoes, but not for me. But I enjoy creating new dishes – yesterday I played with gulf shrimp in pasta in a Louisiana cream sauce and broccoli.
    Really fun to look at all your postcards. You have a nice selection. It’s a bit sad to see old retailers like this going out of business.

  6. these are really beautiful David!