A Brief History of Mail Order

Montgomery Ward Catalog, 1910

Montgomery Ward Catalog - 1910

The end of the 19th century was a good time to be a farmer.  Subsistence farming, growing just enough food for your own family, was being replaced by scientific farming.  Instead of simply farming exactly the same way their fathers and grandfathers did, farmers were conducting experiments and comparing data with the goal of producing more crops per acre than ever before - much more food than their own families needed.  At the same time the Industrial Revolution had folks moving to the cities.  As a result, there was new demand for the  abundance of food farmers were producing and selling.  For the first time, farmers had money!

Traveling salesmen were well aware of the farmers' desire to buy city goods and they were eager to take the farmer's money!  Some traveling salesmen had regular routes and would return to the same customers time and time again.  But many salesmen would sell within an area and then leave, never to return again ... it was an ideal situation for ripping off farmers with shoddy goods at high prices.  Once a salesman left the area the customer had no recourse if the merchandise didn't live up to their expectations.   

Aaron Montgomery Ward of New Jersey started working at age 14 to help support his large family.  He started doing manual labor and then moved into retail.  He was good at retail, starting as a traveling salesman for a dry goods store then moving up to head clerk and eventually general manager.  In 1865, at age 21, he moved to Chicago where he continued working in retail.  He understood the expense of selling by shipping merchandise to outposts for the traveling salesmen to pick-up, hiring horses and rigs for the salesmen's travel, and paying the salesmen their commission.  Ward started wondering, what if you could skip the middlemen by shipping merchandise directly to the customer in his home?

Ward was laughed at.  While it was true you had no recourse for shoddy merchandise purchased from a never-to-be-seen-again traveling salesman, at least you got your merchandise.  You handed your money to the salesman and he immediately pulled the item out of his wagon.  Ward's idea on the other hand, was for customers to mail their money away and then wait,  and wait,  and wait!  How could they be assured that the retailer would ever actually ship their order?  What fool would pay for merchandise before he ever saw it?

Ward persisted with his crazy idea​.  He had no storefront, just an office with inventory - and it was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of October, 1871 before he made his first sale.  Start over!  He purchased new inventory and in 1872 published a 8x12 inch single sheet "catalog" that listed the 163 items he had for sale with the ordering instructions.

The company grew slowly, then in 1875 Ward issued the new and unprecedented policy of "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back."  In writing!  Another crazy idea!  It was the era of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware), not "satisfaction guaranteed."  The idea of standing behind every purchase, to every customer, every time was unheard of.  But while fellow merchants laughed at Ward, customers who had been leery of ordering by mail were comforted by it, and his business quickly grew.

Aaron Montgomery Ward - Mail Order History

Aaron Montgomery Ward

Rural Free Delivery Vehicle, 1905

Rural Free Delivery Vehicle, 1905

Mail was delivered to homes in cities, but rural homes did not have mail delivery.  When a farmer ordered an item from Montgomery Ward it was shipped to their nearest train station.  From there the customer either had to pick it up at the train station or pay a private delivery service to deliver it to his home.  ​In 1893 Rural Free Delivery (RFD) was mandated, requiring that the Postal Service deliver to all rural homes.  RFD was slow to implement ... in many areas there were no decent roads, as a result, RFD is credited with improving roads in rural areas so that the mail could get through.  By 1902 all homes had mail delivery, which made ordering from a catalog even easier than it had been before.   

144 years after Montgomery Ward's first one-page catalog was sent, we at FiberWild! don't have a paper catalog but we do have an enormous website with all sorts of quality yarns, patterns and knitting and crocheting stuff.  Like Montgomery Ward, we want you to be happy with your purchase so we have an easy return policy ... just like Ward's "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back" pledge.  We are honoring Montgomery Ward's crazy idea of satisfying customers with fair prices on quality goods shipped directly to your home!

Want to see your yarn budget stretch even farther?  Take advantage of our Winter Clearance Sale with prices cut from 25% to 40% now through Sunday, January 8, 2017!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

Winter Clearance Sale
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