- Born in New Jersey, Aaron Montgomery Ward (1844-1913) created the first mail-order business in Chicago, Illinois, in 1872, selling dry goods to people living in rural areas in the United States. As a traveling salesman, Ward discovered that people in rural areas had a hard time getting products that people living in cities could get readily. He devised a plan so that people could buy quality items by mail and then have them delivered to the nearest train station. Ward started the business with two partners and offered 163 items for sale. However, his first inventory was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. After his partners left, his brother-in-law, Richard Thorne, joined the company. At first, local retailers were threatened by the new business model of "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" and actually took to burning Wards catalogs. However as customer demand grew, Wards became a serious competitive threat to small stores. By 1883, the catalog had become known as the Wish Book and had grown to 10,000 items including pianos, bathtubs, sewing machines, books, bicycles, stoves, chairs, jewelry, and thousands of other items.In 1896, Richard W. Sears began his catalog company and for decades to come would prove to be a formidable competitor. In 1913, Ward died but the company continued with sales of more than $8.7 million. By then the company had affectionately become known as "Monkey Ward's" and, in 1926, it opened its first retail store in Plymouth, Indiana. Two years later there were 244 stores and, by 1929, 531 outlets. At its peak, Wards was the largest retailer in the United States and, in 1930, declined an offer to merge with Sears, Roebuck.In 1949, Gene Autry, a famous American folk hero, recorded the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," written by a Wards copyrighter, Robert L. May. But after the 1950s, Sears and J. C. Penney's made the move to suburban neighborhoods while Wards did not and, as a result, lost market share. In 1960, it merged with Container Corp. of America and became Marcor, Inc.; in 1976, it was bought by Mobil Oil. In 1985, it closed its catalog business and, in 1988, its management pulled off a leveraged buyout of the company. Repositioning itself as an electronics store, it bought out the Lechmere retail chain in 1994 and sold branded items instead of its own private label brands.In 1997, Wards filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and became a subsidiary of General Electric company. By 2000, all of its stores were closed, making it the largest retail bankruptcy liquidation in U.S. history. In 2004, Montgomery Ward was resurrected as an Internet catalog-based retailer selling apparel, home products, furniture, jewelry, and electronics.
Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry. Francesca Sterlacci and Joanne Arbuckle.
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