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U.S. Census Bureau History: Montgomery Ward and the Shop-At-Home Catalog

Cover of a Montgomery War catalog

In August 1872, Montgomery Ward published and mailed the world's first general merchandise
catalog. Regardless of their distance from the stores in cities and towns, Americans could shop
at home for a variety of products and have them delivered to their homes. In the years that
followed its 1872 catalog, the expansion of Ward's product lines to include toys, fine china,
automobile parts, tools, and even houses, helped make the retailer one of the nation's
largest department store chains.

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

In August 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward published the world's first general merchandise catalog for consumers to shop from home and have products delivered to doors. Ward's 1872 mail-order catalog revolutionized retail trade much like the advent of shopping on the World Wide Web forever changed how we researched and bought products in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Aaron Montgomery Ward was born in Chatham, NJ, in 1843. He moved to Chicago, IL, in 1865, where he worked as a traveling salesman and wholesale representative for lamp, leather, and dry goods businesses. During his travels through the nation's rural communities, he found that the quantity and quality of goods available was poor. Families repeatedly told Ward that they would happily order quality products from a catalog if they could be delivered to their home at attractive prices. Despite facing criticism of his catalog shopping idea from potential investors and the loss of his first warehouse and its inventory to the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, Ward founded Montgomery Ward & Company in August 1872. Later that month, he wrote and printed the world's first general merchandise catalog consisting of 163 items for sale with prices and ordering instructions. He mailed catalogs to some of the 500,000 members of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry—many of whom he had met while working as a traveling salesman. Ward's Chicago, IL, shipping office sent orders to customers "collect on delivery" by railway express. Customers inspected the merchandise and paid the railroad station master or rejected the shipment. By 1875, customers sent their payment with orders, but were assured by Montgomery Ward's "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" promise.

By the end of the 19th century, Aaron Montgomery Ward's catalog had expanded into a bound volume containing images and descriptions of thousands of items including agricultural tools, furniture, cloth and apparel, pots and pans, sewing machines, plumbing and electrical fixtures, kitchen appliances, jewelry, and firearms. Ward's success inspired competition, when Richard Sears and Alva Roebuck opened their own Chicago, IL, mail-order company—Sears, Roebuck and Co. Despite the competition, Montgomery Ward & Co. (also known as Wards) expanded rapidly. In addition to building its landmark Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House along the Chicago River in 1907–1908 and a national network of distribution centers, the company opened its first retail store in Plymouth, IN, in 1926. Within 3 years, Wards had 531 stores throughout the United States.

During the Great Depression, Montgomery Ward cut staff and closed stores while investing heavily in remodeling its remaining outlets and updating its product lines. After declining a merger offer from Sears, Wards emerged from the depression as the nation's largest retailer. However, Wards struggles were far from over. Unwilling to settle with striking workers in 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army to seize the company Link to a non-federal Web site fearing the labor unrest would negatively impact the distribution of goods during World War II. President Harry Truman ended the seizure in 1945. As its retail rivals boomed in the post-World War II years, Montgomery Ward struggled. Infighting within management, increased competition, and unsuccessful mergers saw the retailer's fortunes stagnate. In 1985, Montgomery Ward mailed the last of its "Wish Book" catalogs, ending its 113 years as a mail-order business. In 1997, competition from discount retailers like Walmart and Target resulted in Montgomery Ward filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Link to a non-federal Web site. Emerging from bankruptcy in 1999, the company's new owner closed more than 100 stores and renovated remaining locations hoping to compete against "brick-and-mortar" rivals such as Target, Walmart, JCPenney, and Sears, as well as a new challenger—e-commerce. After a disappointing winter holiday shopping season in 2000, the retailer founded 129 years earlier by Aaron Montgomery Ward ceased operations in 2001.

You can learn more about Montgomery Ward and the history of our nation's retail trade sector using census data and records. For example:

  • Aaron Montgomery Ward opened the first office for his mail-order retail business in Chicago, IL, in 1872. Two years earlier, the 1870 Census reported that Chicago was the nation's fifth largest city with a population of 298,977. Chicago became the fourth largest city in the United States in 1880 and second largest in 1890. When Montgomery Ward announced it would close in late 2000, the retailer's hometown had a population of 2,896,016. More recently, the 2020 Census found that with a population of 2,746,388, Chicago, IL, is the third largest city in the nation behind Los Angeles, CA (3,898,747), and New York City, NY (8,804,190).
  • Aaron Montgomery Ward intended to begin catalog sales earlier than August 1872, but the 1871 Great Chicago Fire destroyed the inventory in his warehouse. When firefighters, federal troops, and citizen volunteers finally controlled the fire, more than 17,500 buildings had been destroyed, 100,000 were homeless, and as many as 300 people lost their lives. Remarkably, Chicago, IL,—and Aaron Montgomery Ward—quickly rose from the ashes. Montgomery Ward's shop-at-home catalog grew from 163 items in 1872 to 10,000 a decade later, while Chicago's population grew from 298,977 in 1870 to 503,185 in 1880.
  • Montgomery Ward remained an at-home catalog shopping retailer until it opened its first retail store in Plymouth, IN, in 1926. Located in Marshall County, IN, Plymouth had a population of 4,338 in 1920 and 5,290 in 1930. Today, the city is home to 10,214 people.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau's County Business Patterns series for 2020 found that the United States was home to 1,036,821 employer establishments in the Retail trade sector (NAICS 44-45). The economic census—conducted every 5 years in years ending in "2" and "7"—reported that the nation's retailers had sales, shipments, and production of more than $4.9 trillion in 2017. Total annual payroll for retail employees in 2017 was nearly $442 billion.
  • The Census Bureau's Annual Retail Trade Survey (ARTS) released its first data in 1952. That year, the survey found that merchandise inventories held for sale in all retail stores in the United States totaled more than $19.4 billion on December 31, 1952, with the largest component of retail inventories being motor vehicle dealers with more than $2.5 billion and grocery stores with more than $1.9 billion.
  • In 2020, the ARTS included 16,500 employer businesses that sell directly to consumers and are classified in the retail trade sector in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Data from the survey released in January 2022 showed that the nation's retail sales (NAICS 44–45) increased 3.1 percent from approximately $5.4 trillion in 2019 to nearly $5.6 trillion in 2020.
  • In 1998, the ARTS collected its first data about the nation's e-commerce. That year, Americans spent approximately $5 billion online. More recently, the nation's online shoppers spent $571.2 billion in 2019, and a record $815.4 billion in 2020 as Americans increasingly shopped at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Electronic Shopping and Mail-Order Houses (NAICS 4541) and Hardware Stores (NAICS 44413) saw the greatest sales increases between 2019 and 2020 with 35.2 percent and 20.5 percent, respectively. However, with more people working from home, men's clothing stores saw sales tumble 44.8 percent while women's sales dropped 27.6 percent between 2019 and 2020.
  • Montgomery Ward announced it was going out of business after 128 years in December 2000. The last 250 Montgomery Ward stores and 10 distribution centers closed in cities like Port Richey, FL; Laurel, MD; Portland, OR; Utica, NY; Kansas City, MO; Owensboro, KY; Lincoln, NE; and Albuquerque, NM. As consumers increasingly shopped online, department stores like Montgomery Ward struggled to adapt. In November and December 2000, department stores reported sales of nearly $57.8 billion. By 2019, combined November and December sales at department stores had fallen to $31.8 billion while spending on electronic shopping and at mail-order houses rose from approximately $24.9 billion to $152.3 billion during the same period.
  • The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) defines retailers like Montgomery Ward as "Department stores" (NAICS 452210). The industry comprises establishments that have separate departments for merchandise, such as apparel, jewelry, home furnishings, and toys, with no one merchandise line predominating. Department stores may sell perishable groceries, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, but sales of these items are not significant. Department stores may also have separate customer checkout areas in each department, central customer checkout areas, or both. Although Montgomery Ward closed its last store in 2001, the 2017 Economic Census found that 3,717 department stores have survived. These stores had sales of more than $66.6 billion and annual payroll exceeding $9.8 billion in 2017.
  • American Community Survey 5-year estimates reported that retail trade was the third largest employer of the civilian employed population 16 years and over in the United States in 2020. That year, 23.3 percent of Americans reported working in educational services, and health care and social assistance; 11.7 percent worked in professional, scientific, and management, and administrative and waste management services; and 11 percent were employed in retail trade.
  • Although Montgomery Ward went out of business in 2001, the Montgomery Ward name, logo, and store brands are still used as intellectual property and valued among customers who fondly remember the retailer's catalogs and stores.The Census Bureau collects data about companies that own and manage these names, logos, and rights as part of NAICS 533110, Lessors of nonfinancial intangible assets (except copyrighted works). According to the economic census, the industry's revenue grew from nearly $33 billion in 2012 to more than $47 billion in 2017. More recently, the Census Bureau's County Business Patterns series for the pay period that included March 12, 2020, found that 2,571 establishments in the Lessors of nonfinancial intangible assets (except copyrighted works) industry employed 38,771 people.

Houston, Texas shopping mall

Department stores like Montgomery Ward, Wanamakers, Jordan Marsh, Bullock's, and Marshall Field's once drew huge crowds to stores and shopping malls throughout the United States.
In November and December 2000, department stores reported sales of nearly $57.8 billion. More recently, the popularity of electronic shopping has drawn shoppers away from malls and
department stores. By 2019, combined November and December sales at department stores had fallen to $31.8 billion while spending on electronic shopping and at mail-order houses rose
from approximately $24.9 billion to $152.3 billion during the same period.

Photo courtesy of Harris County, TX.

Citing Our Internet Information

Individual census records from 1790 to 1950 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.

Publications related to the census data collected from 1790 to 2020 are available at https://www.census.gov/library/publications.html.

Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 and 1950 Census records.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents' privacy.

Records from the 1950 to 2010 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1950 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.

Did you know?

Page from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer book courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College

The holiday story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer originated as a Montgomery Ward winter holiday promotion.

Copy editor Robert L. May published the children's book to draw shoppers into Montgomery Ward department stores during the 1939 holiday shopping season. The promotion was so popular that in that first year alone, the department store gave away more than 2.4 million copies of the book.

In 1948, Max Fleischer directed an 8-minute animated film based on May's story that became part of Montgomery Ward's holiday advertising. That same year, Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Sung by cowboy-crooner Gene Autry, the holiday song quickly rose to the top of the American pop music charts.

In 1964, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass produced a stop-motion animated television special based on Robert May's story. With narration by American singer and actor Burl Ives, the program is still "must watch television" when it airs during the winter holidays.

Today, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is as much a part of holiday folklore as stories like Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

This Month in Census History

On August 25, 1864, Confederate soldier Jacob W. Cobb, Jr. captured future superintendent of the census Francis Amasa Walker during the Civil War's Second Battle of Ream's Station.

Released during an October 1864 prisoner exchange, Walker returned to his family's home in North Brookfield, MA.

Walker was working at a Springfield, MA, newspaper when President Ulysses Grant appointed him to supervise the 1870 Census. A decade later, President Rutherford Hayes asked Walker to oversee the 1880 Census.

Learn more about Walker in, "Captured! The Civil War Experience of Superintendent of the Census Francis Amasa Walker."

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: August 01, 2022