Growing up every year as fall began, I would begin getting excited when the mailman came. I would come home from school and ask my mother, “Did it come today?” Anticipation grew each day until finally Mom would smile and say “Here it is!” How excited I would be as I opened the Montgomery Wards Christmas catalog.
Aaron Montgomery Ward launched the nation’s first mail-order business with a one-page price list boasting 163 items, which he sent to farmers’ cooperatives throughout the rural Midwest. Unlike existing mail-order businesses that dealt only in individual items, Ward offered the rural consumer a variety of merchandise and, by eliminating the middleman, kept prices low. His new business found a ready market as homesteaders pushed west across the frontier. By the spring of 1874, his price list had grown to 32 pages and was bound into a catalog. Ward offered a guarantee – “Satisfaction or your money back!” It was dubbed the Wish Book.
Wards was the first, but ultimately not the biggest, mail-order business in Chicago. In 1887, Richard Warren Sears, who had sold watches in Minneapolis, moved to the city and with the help of Alvah Curtis Roebuck, a watchmaker, began a mail-order business selling watches. By 1893, the Sears catalog, soon to be called the Big Book, was selling furniture, baby carriages and musical instruments–and carrying some clever advertising. One item–a sewing machine, price $1–was really a needle and thread.
For my family in the 1950’s there was no shopping mall, no on-line shopping, no strip malls. But faithfully every year we got a Christmas catalog from Montgomery Wards. My sister, Minnie, and I got hours of joy out of that catalog. We would sit on the couch with the catalog open to the girls’ clothes or the toys, me on the left side and Minnie on the right, pretending we had lots of money and could order anything we wanted. With the catalog open, I got first choice of anything on the left page. After I picked what I wanted on that page, Minnie could then pick what she wanted. She could pick anything except what I had picked. That was mine. Then we would go to the right page and Minnie got first choice with me getting second choice.
We did that for weeks before Christmas until the pages were all ragged from our turning them over and over.
Over the years, both companies opened stores, and the mail-order business became secondary. In 1985, Montgomery Ward ceased publishing its catalog; Sears ended the Big Book in 1993. Yet the mail-order catalog’s place in American life was undeniable. In 1946, a book-lovers society included a Montgomery Ward catalog on its list of the 100 American books that had most affected American life, noting “no idea ever mushroomed so far from so small a beginning, or had so profound an influence on the economics of a continent, as the concept, original to America, of direct selling by mail, for cash.”
Today, I miss the wish book. Somehow standing in long, long lines and watching people grab and push to get an specially priced item does not compare to sitting in my pajamas in my own home with a cup of coffee and spending hours looking at all the different options available in the wish book.
Time moves on, things change. While I really do not wish to return to the “good old days” I do miss the “good old days” of wish books.