He was born February 17, 1843 in New Jersey. When he was about nine years old, his family moved to Niles, Michigan.
To help support his parents and a large family, by the age of 14 he was working at a cutting machine in a barrel stave factory for 25 cents per day.
A natural salesman, his energy and ambition drove him to seek employment as a salesman for a general store that paid 6 dollars per month plus room and board, a considerable salary at that time.
He worked his way up to become head clerk and eventually general manager. By the end of his first three years his salary as general manager earned him one hundred dollars a month plus board.
A competing store became impressed with the young man and hired him away for an even larger salary. This is when he learned to business of retailing.
In 1865, he relocated to Chicago and began traveling as a salesman on commission for Case and Sobin, a lamp house.
Chicago at that time was the center of the wholesale dry-goods trade. He soon joined the leading dry-goods house, Field Palmer & Leiter, the forerunner of Marshall Field’s. After two years, he joined the wholesale dry-goods business of Wills, Greg & Company.
It was during his time as a traveling salesman, enduring tedious train trips, hiring rigs at local stables, riding out to crossroad stores and listening to the complaints of back-country proprietors and rural customers, that he conceived of an entirely new merchandising technique,
This was a time when rural customers longed for the comforts of the city, yet all too often were victimized by monopolists and overcharged by the middlemen who brought products to the countryside.
He also found that the quality of merchandise was poor, and hapless farmer’s had no recourse. It was in this climate that he shaped a plan to buy goods at low cost for cash, eliminate intermediaries, reduce sales prices, and sell goods directly to people, however remote, at appealing prices.
His concept was to invite customers to send their orders in, where he could deliver the purchased goods to their nearest railroad station. The only problem was he lacked the required capital investment.
None of his friends or business acquaintances shared his enthusiasm for this revolutionary idea; to the contrary, most viewed his concept as lunacy.
Great Chicago Fire
He saved, and wheeled and dealed, until he had put together his first inventory. Then, on Sunday, October 8, 1871 fire broke out in the warehouse district of Chicago destroying 3 square miles and killing hundreds of people.
Two days later when the fire was finally put out, he learned that he had lost all of his investment.
Keeping the Dream alive
He decided to persevere, and by August of 1872, he and two partners had put together $1,600 and formed a new company.
Aaron Montgomery Ward rented a small shipping room on North Clark Street and published the world’s first general merchandise mail-order catalog.
This first Montgomery Ward catalog was a single-sheet 8 by 12 inch listing of 163 products, with each product description personally written by Ward.
By the following year, the Montgomery Ward catalog became reviled and even burned publicly by rural retailers. Both of Ward’s partners left him, but he hung on.
Customers were also attracted by Ward’s innovative and unprecedented company policy of “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back”, which he began using in 1875.
In 1883, the Montgomery Ward catalog, which had become popularly known as the “Wish Book” among households all across America, had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items.
In 1896, Richard Warren Sears copied the Montgomery Ward idea, followed by other enterprising merchants.
In 1900, Montgomery Ward had total sales of $8.7 million, compared to $10 million for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and these two companies were to struggle for dominance for much of the 20th century.
In 1908, Montgomery Ward built his Montgomery Ward Tower on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Madison Streets in Chicago. Ward’s Tower reigned as a major tourist attraction in the early 1900’s, that is until Richard Sears built his Sears Tower in 1973.
Ward’s Public Life: The Fight for Grant Park
Ward fought hard for the poor people’s access to Chicago’s lakefront.
In 1906 he campaigned to preserve Grant Park as a public park.
Grant Park had been protected since 1836 by “forever open, clear and free” legislation that had been affirmed by four previous Illinois Supreme Court rulings.
Ward twice sued the city of Chicago to force them to remove buildings and structures from Grant Park and to keep the city from building new ones.
Ward became known by some as the “watch dog of the lake front” for these preservationist efforts. As a result, the city instituted what are termed the Montgomery Ward height restrictions on buildings and structures in Grant Park. However, Crown Fountain and the 139-foot Jay Pritzker Pavilion were exempt from the height restriction because they were classified as works of art and not buildings or structures.
Daniel Burnham’s famous 1909 Burnham Plan eventually preserved Grant Park and the entire Chicago lakefront.
Montgomery Ward died December 7, 1913, at the age of 69. His wife bequeathed a large portion of his estate to Northwestern University and other educational institutions.
Despite the collapse of its catalog and department stores in 2001, Montgomery Ward & Co. still adheres to the once unheard philosophy of “satisfaction guaranteed” as an online retailer.
The Montgomery Ward catalog’s place in history was assured when the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles in New York, exhibited it in 1946 alongside Webster’s dictionary as one of the hundred books with the most influence on life and culture of the American people.
A bronze busts honoring Ward and seven other industry magnates stand between the Chicago River and the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, Illinois and a smaller version of that portrait bust is located in Grant Park.
Forbes magazine readers and editors have ranked Aaron Montgomery Ward as the 16th most influential businessman of all time.
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