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One For The Road: Montgomery Ward's First Catalog

By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 27, 2012 10:30PM

Full-length group portrait of seven women office employees at the Montgomery Ward department store, posing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, dark exposure. One woman is standing in the foreground, four women are sitting in the background, and two women are standing in the background. A piano is visible in the background. 1929. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum.

On this date in 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward launched the first mail-order retail company when he created the catalog to reach rural consumers. Ward had previously worked for Palmer & Leiter, then worked selling Marshall Field products in rural areas before he started his own venture.

The Tribune writes:

It began with a one-page price list boasting 163 items, which he sent to farmers' cooperatives throughout the rural Midwest. It had not been a particularly easy launch. Less than a year earlier, Ward had been nearly ready to start business when his entire stock of merchandise was destroyed in the Chicago Fire. Unlike existing mail-order businesses that dealt only in individual items, Ward offered the rural consumer a variety of merchandise and, by eliminating the middleman, kept prices low. His new business found a ready market as homesteaders pushed west across the frontier. By the spring of 1874, his price list had grown to 32 pages and was bound into a catalog. Color illustrations, woodcuts and drawings by Charles Dana Gibson followed. Ward, who had worked for Marshall Field, offered customers the same guarantee as Field--"Satisfaction or your money back!"--and peppered the catalog with information from the manufacturer. It was dubbed the Wish Book.

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, the catalog was 32 pages by 1874. By 1876, it was 152 pages long. By 1897, the catalog was nearly 1,000 pages long, and annual sales had reached $7 million.

Here's a peek at 1922's Montgomery Ward catalog.