February 17, 2011

Vintage 365: Remembering the man who invented mail-order shopping

Day 48 of Vintage 365

{Vintage page featuring three women in smartly styled rayon dresses and very eye-catching hats, from the 1939 Montgomery Ward catalog. Image via Wondertrading on Flickr.}


The name Aaron Ward might not be a household one any more these days, yet the world of shopping was forever changed by this chap in the later half of the nineteenth century when he pioneered the idea of mail ordering. A shrewd business man with an eye for what people wanted, Ward came up with the idea of offering customers the ability to buy products by mail when he was a sprightly young traveling salesman.

Bothered by the fact that he routinely saw many Americans (particularly, he felt, those in rural areas) being grossly overcharged and under-served by small town retailers (whom they had to turn to for all of their shopping needs), in 1872 Ward came up with the novel idea of offering customers the ability to buy products from a retailer located outside of their immediate area.

Though this idea now seems as commonplace as bread to us, at the time it was viewed by many to be strikingly innovative - and rather nuts, by others. Ward didn't let his critics and naysayers get to him though, as he ploughed on and formed the Montgomery Ward & Company shop that same year. Ward went onto publish what is often considered to be the world's first general merchandise mail-order catalogue in 1872, as well, which contained a modest 163 products.

Jump ahead to the twentieth century and Montgomery Ward had become one of America's most popular mail-order catalog services, beloved by many from coast to coast. Though it wasn't long before other merchants and companies saw the wisdom of Ward's terrific mail-order catalog and began producing versions as well (think companies like Sears, who debuted their first mail-order publication in 1896), for numerous decades the Montgomery Ward  catalog was a mail-order standard throughout the States, Canada and beyond.

Though Aaron Ward passed away in 1913, and his company (Montgomery Ward) has shifted over the years from bricks and mortar shops paired with mail-order catalogs to an online retailer, February 17th marks this innovative businessman's birthday, and as a lifelong catalog lover, I wanted to take a moment to remember – and celebrate the life of - the man who brought mail-order shopping to the masses.

Thank you very much, Mr. Ward, for helping to revolutionize - and forever improve - the society shops! Though I haven't bought from your company directly, I've long been a big a fan of your catalogs - particularly those from the mid-twentieth century (such as the one from 1939 which included the image in today's post) - and very much appreciate what you did for the world of buying and selling.


  1. When is that catalog from? I have the biggest feeling it's from the 1940s or something.

  2. We had Montgomery Ward stores in Chicago while I was growing up. I am forever indebted to the catalog gods of yore like Monkey Wards (as people often called the stores) and Sears for their wonderful eye candy.