By Lily Kaar
One of the factors in collections management is that we’re constantly improving our understanding of historic object preservation. While this helps us improve our care of the objects so they don’t get damaged simply from existing in storage, sometimes this means that the current storage methods can end up being harmful to the objects, and they need to be re-wrapped, repacked, or even relocated. Last summer, boxes of historic clothing and textiles were pulled from their storage place in the non-climate controlled attic of the Deyo House and moved to Deyo Hall.
During the relocation process, we lost track of exactly what was moved from the attic, which meant an inventory needed to be done. Doing inventory is an interesting kind of roulette; sometimes you open a new box to find a dozen highly similar housewares with no accession numbers. Sometimes, though, you find something unique and exciting, like this old mail-order catalog for Montgomery Ward & Co. we found acting as a spool for a length of black fringe trim in a box of fabric scraps.
Montgomery Ward & Co. was the first mail order dry goods business, and the second mail order catalog ever released in the US, preceded only by the Tiffany & Co. Blue Book. Founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward in Chicago in 1872, the company was completely mail order-based until the first physical store went up in 1926, and continued business until declaring bankruptcy in 2000. They originated the slogan “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back”1 in 1875, and Ward staff copywriter Robert L. May was the creator of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of a Christmas-themed coloring book introduced in 1939.2
Mail order catalogs such as this one give a glimpse into what people were buying around the country. People in rural areas wanted city goods and manufactured items, which were only available after being sold and resold through various middlemen until they came to the local general stores, at an increased markup with no quality guarantees. Catalogs, as direct marketing, offered a wider range of goods for reduced prices, allowing the customer more options in the items they wished to buy.
This catalog is for the fall and winter of 1877 into 1888. It would be another four years before Hammacher Schlemmer published their first catalog, and ten years before the debut of Sears Roebuck & Co. As you can see, the format is a bit different than the mail order catalog we’re used to today. Most goods are not illustrated, left to a very short description in a list, alongside the serial number and the price. This can be a little confounding to the modern viewer, as the catalog sold a large variety of goods, including patterned fabric, but only included drawings of a few investment pieces, such as a mattress box spring or steamer trunks.
Another thing that can throw a modern viewer is the prices listed for the goods in catalogs such as these. Here, all prices are given in cents. It can be fun to find a historical currency converter (here’s a good one) and figure out what the equivalent cost would be in today’s dollars. Take the mattresses listed below the box spring, for example. The catalog lists the more expensive option at $5.30. Run it through a converter and you discover that is roughly equal to $124.00 in 2014, about the same as the low end of today’s mattress prices.3
With the rise of better transportation networks and the growth of towns, the mail-order catalog business had to change, shifting focus to include physical stores as well as catalog services. Montgomery Ward & Co. did have a line of department stores from 1926 onward and was a major retail giant during the middle of the 20th century, although mismanagement caused the long low faltering of the brand. The company president at the time of World War II, Sewell Avery, refused to expand the department store line or invest in the upkeep pf existing stores after the War, convinced that a recession was coming and he would need the profits to buy up his competitors once it hit. This misunderstanding of the markets eventually led to Avery’s resignation in 1955, and the opening of the first new store since 1930 two years later. Unfortunately, the heads of the company continued to be cautious where competitors such as Sears were bold, and did not expand into the rapidly growing suburbs effectively. The company was bought, merged, and sold multiple times, losing business with each attempted restructuring, until bankruptcy was declared and the chain liquidated in 2000.
The intellectual property of Montgomery Ward & Co., including trademarks, was bought in 2004, and there is now a namesake company offering both catalog and internet services.
1 “Who Originated “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back”?” Printer’s Ink. 26 February 1920: 10, 12. Print.
2 Kim, Wook. “Yule Laugh, Yule Cry: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Beloved Holiday Songs.” TIME.com. TIME Magazine, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 22 July 2015.
3 Shop All Mattresses — Sleepy’s. Sleepy’s: The Mattress Professionals. Web. 16 July 2015.