“Who was Aaron Montgomery Ward?” by S.M. O’Connor

Future mail-order retail tycoon Aaron Montgomery (“Monty”) Ward (1844-1913) was born in Chatham, New Jersey circa 1844 the son of Sylvester A. Ward and Julia Laura Green.[1]  When he was a young boy eight or nine years of age, his father sold the family farm to acquire a general store in Niles, Michigan that was supposed to be stocked with goods only to discover he had been tricked and the store was empty, so the family had to live in the store Sylvester owned while he worked in another store.[2]  At the age of fourteen, Monty Ward moved out to help support his family by working successively in a barrel-stave factory and a brickyard.[3]  In 1861, he moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, a port town on Lake Michigan, where he worked at a store for $5 and board, meaning he lived there.[4]  Three years later he was the manager of the place and was paid a salary of $100 per month.[5]

In 1865, he moved to Chicago to work for Field, Palmer, & Leiter (which evolved into Marshall Field & Company), a job he held until 1867.[6]  By 1870, he was a traveling salesman for a dry goods wholesaler.[7]  After the first wholesaler that employed him failed he found the same kind of job with another company, but this one was based in St. Louis, Missouri.[8]  In his travels in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas, he noticed there was a wide disparity between the prices wholesalers charged retailers and the prices shop owners charged farmers and residents of market towns, and the customers resented those small town shops.[9]  Monty Ward began to conceive of a new type of retail enterprise that would take advantage of the U.S. Postal Service and expanding railroad service to ship dry goods directly to customers who would order them through the mail.[10]  He would cut out the middle men at both ends by purchasing goods directly from manufacturers in bulk at low prices with cash and would accept low profit margins when he turned around and sold goods directly to customers who would pay low prices in cash.[11]

Ward determined he would need to accumulate capital (cash) and stock (goods) at a railroad hub, so he moved back to Chicago, where he worked as a buyer for C.W. & E. Pardridge Company, which was both a wholesaler and a retailer (much as Marshall Field & Company would become).[12]  He suffered a major setback with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which consumed his stock.[13]  In 1872, he went into business with two colleagues from C.W. & E. Pardridge Company: George Drake and Robert Caulfield.[14]  Ward put out a one-page dry goods catalogue.[15]  He also received support (financial and otherwise) from the family of Elizabeth J. Cobb, whom he wed in February of 1872.[16]  Her uncle enabled him to establish a special relationship with the National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry (often called The Grange).[17]  [Founded in 1867, it is the oldest American organization dedicated to agricultural advocacy – promoting the financial and political well-being of farmers and farm towns.]   Ward’s company was even called “The Original Grange Supply House.”[18]  His company sold to Grange cooperative stores as well as individual Grange members in Illinois and Iowa.[19]  Within two years, he bought out his original two partners; replaced them with his friend and brother-in-law George Robert Thorne, who was a businessman in Chicago; and quit his job at C.W. & E. Pardridge Company.[20]

The firm that was later to be known as Montgomery Ward & Company was the first retail business to sell general merchandise exclusively by mail.[21]  To make it a success, Ward (and Thorne) had to find ways to efficiently (a) purchase dry goods, (b) store those goods in warehouses, (c) advertising those goods, (d) receiving orders, and (e) ship out ordered goods to their rural customers.[22]  Grange members received goods C.O.D. (cash-on-demand) with the guarantee if they were not satisfied with the products they could return the merchandise within ten days for a full refund.[23]  The Grange later approved when Ward extended this guarantee to the general public.[24]

A Ward catalogue contained photographs of company executives, testimonials from happy customers, and slogans that reminded customers (and prospective customers) to oppose monopolies.[25] They reflected his commitment to do “your Christian duty.”[26]  Ward catalogues became known as “dream books.”[27]

By 1876, the Ward catalogue was 150 pages long and sales reached $1,000,000 per year.[28]  In 1889, sales exceeded $2,000,000 per year and profits reached $115,000.[29]  That year, Ward and Thorne incorporated their firm as Montgomery Ward & Company with capitalization of $500,000.[30]  With Ward as president and Thorne as vice-president each man received an annual salary of $12,000.[31]  In 1893, Ward sold out controlling interest in Montgomery Ward & Company to George Robert Thorne.[32]  On paper, he remained president of the corporation, but he ceased to accept a salary or take an active role in management.[33]  He stopped to attend board meeting after 1903.[34]

The company continued to grow under the leadership of William C. Thorne, the eldest of his five nephews.[35] The twenty-five story Ward Tower opened in 1899.[36]  It was the tallest building west of the Alleghany Mountains.[37]  In January of 1913, Montgomery Ward & Company, having incorporated in New York, issued 7% cumulative preferred stock amounting to $10,000,000.[38]  The Board of Directors included A. Montgomery Ward, President of Montgomery Ward & Company; W.C. Thorne, C.H. Thorne, J.W. Thorne, G.A. Thorne, R.J. Thorne; C.H. Norton, Vice-President of the First National Bank in New York; and John R. Morton, President of the Atlas Portland Cement Company.[39]

Sales at Montgomery Ward & Company reached $40,000,000 and the company had 6,000 employees by the death of Aaron Montgomery Ward the man in December of 1913.[40]  However, in the Edwardian era, a competing mail-order retail house that had arisen in Chicago, Sears, Roebuck & Company, had surpassed Montgomery Ward & Company in sales.[41]  Both mail-order retailers would open divisions that operated chains of department stores later in the 20th Century.  The Thorne family retained control of Montgomery Ward & Company until 1921.[42]   Three of Monty Ward’s nephews held the presidency of the corporation: William, Charles, and Robert.[43]

Aaron Montgomery Ward is fondly remembered now for having sued the City of Chicago to clean up Lake Park (later renamed Grant Park).  In 1890, A. Montgomery Ward sued the City of Chicago to clean and improve Lake Park, which was filled with the shacks of squatters, refuse that awaited removal by train, as well as the ruins of the Inter-State Exposition Building, a firehouse, railroad sheds, and two Federal armories.[44]  Years later, he explained to a Tribune reporter the site had been used for dog fights, circuses and Alderman Hinky Dink Kenna’s masquerade balls for the prostitutes of the Levee.[45] Further, he wanted to block the construction of a civic center that would have included a city hall, police station, a power plant, and stables for horses and garbage pick-up wagons.[46]

The one building he allowed to be constructed in Grant Park was the Italian Renaissance-style structure at the west end of Lake Park along Michigan Avenue, designed by Charles A. Coolidge (1858-1936) with the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, which temporarily housed the World’s Congress Auxiliary during Chicago’s first World’s Fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and afterwards housed The Art Institute of Chicago. [47]   [The “Congresses” (international conferences and symposiums) were the brainchild of Chicago lawyer, judge, teacher, author, and orator Charles Carroll Bonney (1831-1903), and covered such topics as women, labor, medicine, education, finance, temperance, evolution, religion, philosophy, literature, architecture, and art.[48]]  The A.I.C. building was erected on the former site of the Inter-State Industrial Exposition Building.[49]  While the A.I.C. project was underway, Coolidge was also awarded the contract to design the Chicago Public Library, the city’s first purpose-built public library building, which opened in Dearborn Park in 1897, and in 1977 became the Chicago Cultural Center.[50]   [Coolidge also designed the Georgian Revival style mansion for Chicago Tribune publisher and post-Great Fire Mayor of Chicago (1871-73) Joseph Medill (1823-1899), built in 1896, which was later enlarged in the 1930s by Medill’s grandson and Chicago Tribune publisher Colonel Robert R. McCormick (1880-1955) and is now the McCormick Museum at Cantigny Museum and Gardens in Winfield, IL.]  He later regretted allowing the construction of The Art Institute of Chicago (A.I.C.) because it established a precedent.[51]  In 1897, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld Ward’s lawsuit against the City of Chicago to clean and improve Lake (now Grant) Park, and prevent the City from building a civic center there, but exempted the A.I.C. in Lake Park and the Chicago Public Library in Dearborn Park, where Lincoln once spoke. [52]  Ward spent $50,000 on lawsuits to protect Grant Park.[53]  [To younger readers, that may seem like a relatively small sum.  After all, for $50,000 one could purchase outright a pretty nice car or place a decent down payment on a house today.   To put it in perspective, though, back then for $50,000 Ward could have purchased multiple middle-class homes outright and rented them out or given them to poor relations.]  He used his status as an owner of property on Michigan Avenue that overlooked the park to block plans to erect buildings for The John Crerar Library and The Field Museum of Natural History in Grant Park. This earned him the sobriquet “The Watch Dog of the Lake Front.”[54]

cloud gate
Photo by Bhargava Marripati on Pexels.com

Ward also became a gentleman-farmer, as he raised horses on his estate La Belle Knoll in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.[55]  He also became a golfer at his summer home in Pasadena, California.[56]  He gave large sums of money to charities but did so in secret because he did not want people to think he was doing so merely to bask in gratitude from those who benefitted from his largesse.[57]  At the time of his death at his residence in north suburban Highland Park, Illinois, he left an estate worth approximately $15,000,000, the bulk of which went to Elizabeth.[58]  He bequeathed $1,500,000 to their only child, a daughter whom they had adopted.[59]

Mrs. Ward gave over $8,500,000 to Northwestern University for the McKinlock Campus the Evanston, Illinois -based Northwestern University built in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood east of the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue.[60]  As recounted by Ron Sims, Special Collections Librarian at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s Galter Health Sciences Library, Aaron Montgomery Ward left the bulk of his estate to his widow, Elizabeth J. Ward, and his daughter, Marjorie Montgomery Ward, and in 1923 Elizabeth donated $3,000,000 to Northwestern University to build a medical center on the Streeterville Campus she knew Northwestern’s trustees wanted to build to house professional schools.  The next year, she donated an additional $1,000,000 to endow the medical center.  In 1926, she donated $4,000,000 “for the improvement of teaching of Medicine and Dentistry in the Medical and Dental Schools…”  James Gamble Rogers designed the new campus in the Collegiate Gothic style of architecture.  The tallest building, the nineteen-story Aaron Montgomery Ward Memorial Building, opened in 1927.  It housed the Medical and Dental Schools, clinics, and laboratories.

Mrs. A. Montgomery (Elizabeth Cobb) Ward died at her home at 2344 Lincoln Park West in Chicago on July 26, 1926 at the age of sixty-nine.[61]  She and her daughter, Miss Marjorie Ward, had just returned the previous day from their residence in Pasadena.[62]  Unfortunately, the extreme heat they had encountered near Yuma, Arizona – 110°F – on the way back to Chicago had a severe impact on Mrs. Ward’s health and they had ventured on from that point in the company of a doctor and nurse.[63]  She was buried in the Ward Mausoleum at Rose Hill Cemetery.[64]

 

[1] Alan R. Raucher, “WARD, Aaron Montgomery” in American National Biography, Volume 22, p. 620

[2] Raucher, p. 619

[3] Raucher, p. 619

[4] Raucher, p. 619

[5] Raucher, p. 619

[6] Raucher, p. 619

See also The Dictionary of American Biography.  Edited by John S. Brown. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press (1995), p. 769

[7] Raucher, p. 619

See also The Dictionary of American Biography, p. 769

[8] Raucher, p. 619

[9] Raucher, p. 619

See also The Dictionary of American Biography, p. 769

[10] Raucher, p. 619

[11] Raucher, p. 619

[12] Raucher, p. 619

[13] Raucher, p. 619

[14] Raucher, p. 619

[15] The Dictionary of American Biography, p. 769

[16] Raucher, p. 619

[17] Raucher, p. 619

[18] Raucher, p. 619

[19] Raucher, pages 619 and 620

[20] Raucher, p. 620

[21] Raucher, p. 620

[22] Raucher, p. 620

[23] Raucher, p. 620

[24] Raucher, p. 620

[25] Raucher, p. 620

[26] Raucher, p. 620

[27] Raucheer, p. 620

[28] The Dictionary of American Biography, p. 769

[29] Raucher, p. 620

[30] Raucher, p. 620

[31] Raucher, p. 620

[32] Raucher, p. 620

[33] Raucher, p. 620

[34] Raucher, p. 620

[35] Raucher, p. 620

[36] Raucher, p. 620

See also The Dictionary of American Biography, p. 769

[37] Raucher, p. 620

[38] “Montgomery Ward Stock,” The New York Times, 27 January, 1913, p. 14

[39] Ibid

[40] Raucher, p. 620

See also The Dictionary of American Biography, p. 769

[41] Raucher, p. 620

[42] Raucher, p. 620

[43] Raucher, p. 620

[44] Joan Pomaranc and Kathleen Nagle, “Grant Park and Burnham Park,” AIA Guide to Chicago. Ed. Alice Sinkevitch. 2nd edition. New York: Harcourt, Inc. (2004), p. 34

See also Perry R. Duis, “The Shaping of Chicago,” AIA Guide to Chicago. Ed. Alice Sinkevitch. 2nd edition. New York: Harcourt, Inc. (2004), p. 14

See also Lois Wille, Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press (1972, 1991), p. 74

See also Raucher, p. 620

For a description of the Inter-State Exposition Building, see Stanley Appelbaum, Spectacle in the White City: The Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. Mineola, New York: Calla Editions, an imprint of Dover Publications, Inc. (2009), p. 1

[45] Wille, pages 73, 74, 79, and 80

[46] Wille, pages 73-75

[47] Wille, p. 75

[48] Stanley Appelbaum, Spectacle in the White City: The Chicago 1893 World’s Fair. Mineola, New York: Calla Editions, an imprint of Dover Publications, Inc. (2009), p. 138

[49] Joseph M. Siry, The Chicago Auditorium Building: Adler and Sullivan’s Architecture and the City. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press (2002), p. 32

[50] Donald F. Miller, City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster (1996), p. 385

See also Chicago’s Famous Buildings. Ira J. Bach, editor. 3rd edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (1965, 1969, 1980), p. 389

See also Cathleen D. Cahill, “Chicago Public Library,” Encyclopedia of Chicago (http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/261.html) Accessed 03/10/09

[51] Wille, p. 75

[52] Wille, pages 23 and 75

[53] Wille, p. 71

[54] Raucher, p. 620

[55] Raucher, p. 620

[56] Raucher, p. 620

[57] Raucher, p. 620

[58] Raucher, p. 620

[59] Raucher, p. 620

[60] Raucher, p. 620

See also “Mrs. Ward Dies: A Philanthropist,” The New York Times, 27 July, 1926, Sports Amusements, p. 17

[61] “Mrs. Ward Dies: A Philanthropist,” The New York Times, 27 July, 1926, Sports Amusements, p. 17

[62] Ibid

[63] Ibid

[64] Ibid

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close