By Ray Schultz
Of all of our myths, none is more cherished than the one that life was wonderful for settlers on the Great Plains. They had land, thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862, and that’s all they needed (that and pianos for sing-alongs).
But it wasn’t so. Some lived in hovels, not in the Victorian homes we envision. The conditions were harsh, the weather terrifying. Worse, the farmers had little human contact. Some had hallucinations, others committed suicide. This was powerfully captured in Willa Cather’s My Antonia. “I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda,” the narrator writes. His exhausted spirit was “tired of cold and crowding and the struggle with the ever-falling snow.”
But what of those who did survive? Those are the ones we celebrate. They worked their farms. And when they needed seeds, tools, clothes or even coffee, they went to general stores which also served as post offices. And there they were gouged.
In 1872, 40 Midwestern farmers received what probably was the first piece of direct mail they’d ever seen. If the store owners had any idea what it was, they may not have handed it over—it threatened their interests. Not that there was any secret about it: It was headlined: “Grangers supplied by the Cheapest Cash House in America.”
“At the Earnest Solicitation of Many Granges we have consented to open a House devoted to furnishing Farmers and Mechanics throughout the Northwest with all kinds of Merchandise at Wholesale prices. Few indeed realize the extent to which the cost of living in this country is increased by the expense incidental to the distribution of goods under the older methods in vogue.” Attached was a price sheet, listing various staples.
The farmers could be forgiven for thinking it was too good to be true. But it was on the level. The letter had been sent from Chicago by a 39 year-old entrepreneur named Aaron Montgomery Ward. And whatever it lacked in style, it made up in sincerity. Ward was one of the first consumerists. He wanted to help the farmer (and, of course, make a small profit for himself).
Born in New Jersey, in 1843, Ward grew up in Michigan, worked in factories and a general store, then held a series of sales jobs. At age 22, he was hired by the Marshall Fields department store in Chicago. Fields had a lucrative side business, selling merchandise wholesale to general stores by mail. Ward was handed this plum, and he came to know farmers and how badly they were robbed by almost everyone they did business with.
Ward had an epiphany: he envisioned a department store by mail. He bought some wholesale merchandise, lost it in the Chicago fire of 1871, then started over. Scoffers ridiculed him for thinking that products could be sold sight unseen, and that women in particular would forego “the pleasurable excitement of shopping.”
But Ward knew better, and he had an advantage that even Marshal Fields lacked: He had the National Grange in his pocket. Ward was clever enough to arrange one of the first affinity deals. The Grange let him use its name and membership list, and Ward got himself appointed as purchasing agent for the Illinois Grange, which enabled him to get better prices for himself.
Of course, the Grange connection gave Ward something just as precious: access to the farmers. Attending their monthly meetings, Grangers were likely to find that the entertainment of the evening was a mustachioed figure—Ward himself. He assured the farmers that the pictures and words in his catalog were accurate; to prove it, he displayed the goods. There was one more thing: he gave a money-back guarantee.
In two years, Ward moved from a single sheet to a 32-page catalog that offered “notions, hose and gloves, hat trimmings, toilet goods, letter paper, needles, cutlery, jewelry and watches, fans and parasols, stereoscopes and albums, trunks and traveling bags, harness, Grange regalia, goods, clothing, hats and caps, boots and shoes,” according to Ward Catalogue No. 11, from 1874. And in time, he published his “big” books, omnibus catalogs that carried everything from underwear to stoves.
As time went on, Ward mailed also almanacs and tiny pocket catalogs, like one titled “4 Ways to get a copy of Montgomery Ward & Co’s Big Catalogue No. 73,” circa 1904. This was a form of prospecting: It was too expensive to mail the big book to non-customers or people who had not showed an interest.
“The average farmer feels like spending when, after he has sold his stock or grain and paid up his taxes, he finds a good fat roll still in his pockets,” Ward wrote. “If the mail order man’s literature is on the spot at the time, ten to one he will reap the benefit.”
Some operators encouraged the farmers themselves to try their hand at starting a mail order business. They offered products that a person might sell from his kitchen table—books like, “Why God Lets the Devil Exist.”
By 1888, Ward had a rival for the title of the Farmer’s savior: Richard Sears. But Sears didn’t see himself as anyone’s savior. He was a hustler, one in a line. His father James had gone to California for the Gold rush of 1849, and came back broke. Sears went to work at 16 to help support his family, and eventually became a station manager for the Minneapolis St. Louis Railroad. He came upon a carton of watches refused by a local jewelry store, and sold them for a $2 markup to agents along the line. And he went on from there.
There was one major difference between Ward and Sears. Ward built his business with “missionary fervor and a deep desire to help each customer. Sears did it as an opportunist—for money, excitement and the joy of selling,” wrote the renowned mail order historian Cecil Hoge.
And yet, “as the firm grew, Sears made a special effort to keep the personal touch,” Daniel J. Boorstin wrote. “For some time, even after the typewriter had come into general use, letters sent out by the company were handwritten out of respect for the feelings of the farm clientele who were sometimes offended to receive a letter that was ‘machine-made.’”
Sears sent personal letters, like this one to J.W. Bull, of West Virginia, on March 24, 1894:
About three weeks ago we sent out a special offer, offering as a present a $100.00 organ to the first one to order our $5.95 watch, and a $50.00 gold filled watch, as a present, to the first order received from each state. Up to the present time we have received no order from your state, so we write you confidentially under two cent stamp. If you will fill out the enclosed order blank immediately and send to us, with $5.95 for watch described, we will see that you get “at least” a very nice present at once.”
As for Ward, he was not only a consumerist, he was an environmentalist. In 1890, he sued the city of Chicago for allowing its lakefront to be defiled with scaffolding and garbage.
Did the Ward and Sears catalogs really change the way people shopped? Oh, yes. The Main St. general stores were driven out of business, and the owners hated the men who had done this to them. O.E. McIntyre later joked, “I’m working for Sears, but don’t tell my mom—she thinks I’m playing piano in a call house.”
Note: The sources for this article include news clippings, vintage direct mail pieces and the following books:
The First Hundred Years Are The Toughest, By Cecil Hoge
Catalogs and Counters: A History of Sears, Roebuck and Company, By Boris Emmet and John E. Jeuck
The Americans: The Democratic Experience, By Daniel J. Boorstin