From a cramped office on North Clark Street, surrounded by hoop skirts, lace curtains, red flannel, wool socks and more--and with Christmas a mere four months away--Aaron Montgomery Ward launched the nation's first mail-order business.
It began with a one-page price list boasting 163 items, which he sent to farmers' cooperatives throughout the rural Midwest.
It had not been a particularly easy launch. Less than a year earlier, Ward had been nearly ready to start business when his entire stock of merchandise was destroyed in the Chicago Fire.
Unlike existing mail-order businesses that dealt only in their own 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. Color illustrations, woodcuts and drawings by Charles Dana Gibson followed.
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."