In 1895, the United States Postmaster reported that the “largest patron of [our country's] post office is Montgomery Ward & Co” (The History and Progress of Montgomery Ward and Company, p. 19). Four years later, the Spirit of Progress, a 17′ weathervane/statue, was set atop Ward’s Tower Building in downtown Chicago, making it the highest point in the city at 396 feet (ibid, p. 19). The Spirit of Progress became the company logo, appearing on Montgomery Ward’s storefronts and catalogs.
By the turn of the 20th Century, Montgomery Ward & Co. had claimed its prominence on Chicago’s skyline and in America’s wallet. It was the largest retailer in the country.
However, Sears was close behind. According to Mr. Sears’ Catalog (The American Experience, 1991, VHS), Sears studied the Montgomery Ward catalog and schemed and dreamed about the best ways to increase sales and take the lead. One small example: Richard Warren Sears purposefully designed his catalog to be a little shorter and narrower than the Montgomery Ward catalog. He knew that many households would have both catalogs and when the housewife was tidying up, the Sears catalog, being smaller, would be stacked on top of the Ward’s catalog.
Sears aggressive marketing strategies worked. By 1907, annual sales for Sears had jumped to more than $53 million, with Ward trailing at a mere $18 million (The First 100 Years Are The Toughest, p. 57). Sears was now the leading mail order house in the country, and now Montgomery Ward would spend the next several decades trying to catch Sears.
In the early 1930s, there was brief talk of a merger of Sears and Wards, due primarily to the sagging economy. But then Sewell Avery stepped into the position of CEO and breathed new life into Montgomery Ward and Company. There’s no additional information in the mainstream media suggesting that these two mail order giants ever again considered merging.
By the mid-20th Century, the other large retailers had pulled out of the downtown districts but Montgomery Ward refused to budge. Economic historians hail this decision as the one that cost Wards the race. In 1985, the hallmark of Ward’s business, the mail order catalog, was discontinued. After 113 years of selling merchandise through their “Wish Books”, the staff that manned the phones and opened the mail was let go and the department was permanently closed. In December 2000, Ward announced that their 250 retail stores would close.
It was the end of an era.
Below is a photo of Ward’s employees, huddled together braving the bitter cold of a North Dakota winter. Picture is circa 1930.