Our Iowa Heritage: The Baileys & The Montgomery Ward Wish Book.

If you’re like me, you are an Amazon Prime customer who does much of his or her shopping via the internet. Find an item, click it into my shopping cart, hit checkout, and usually, the next day, that item magically appears on my doorstep. Amazing, isn’t it?

But, before we had Amazon and curbside pick-up, yes, even before we had shopping malls, Americans in the late 1800’s relied on mail-order catalogs from stores like Montgomery Ward or Sears to purchase goods.

Which brings me to today’s post…

May 15, 1889 – Good News – Bad News from Chicago.

(P-0251)

On Ebay, I found this delightful postcard from 1889. It’s postmarked in Chicago on May 15, addressed to M. H. Bailey, living at 214 Davenport Street in Iowa City. It looks like the handwriting wasn’t clear (there was a well-known lawyer named W. H. Bailey living in Iowa City as well) and the postmaster (possibly after trying to deliver to W.H.) wrote… “Try M.H.”

This penny postcard comes from the office of Montgomery Ward & Company, located at 111-114 Michigan Avenue (very near the Chicago Art Institute).

Michigan Avenue – Chicago – Circa 1889.

The good news – Montgomery Ward will be shipping M.H. Bailey’s order.

The bad news – his order will be delayed a few days … “until the furniture ordered can be made.”

Ouch!

None of us like delays in shipping, but in the 1880’s, waiting “a few days” for a shipment of new furniture probably didn’t frustrate the Baileys all that much. That’s because prior to Montgomery Ward opening his catalog company in Chicago, there was only one way for people living in rural areas like Iowa City to buy just about anything – a local merchant.

But now, the days of small shops with limited inventory and high prices are gone forever!

1889 – Montgomery Ward’s Wish Book – 240 pages – over 10,000 items!

This is probably the catalog the Baileys used to order their furniture in 1889.

Historian Nick Lyons says this about Montgomery Ward and their amazing Wish Book catalogs…

At its zenith from the 1880s to the 1940s, Montgomery Ward, like its cross-town Chicago rival, Sears, sold virtually everything the average American could think of or desire – and by mail. This was a revolution, and Ward’s fired the first shot. To buy spittoons, books of gospel hymns, hat pins, rifles, wagons, violins, birdcages, or portable bathtubs, purchases that used to require many separate trips to specialist merchants, suddenly all the American shopper had to do was lick a stamp.

1870’s – Montgomery Ward turns retailing on its ear.

Montgomery Ward & Company was founded in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward, a 28-year old traveling dry goods salesman, who conceived the idea of a mail-order business after observing in his travels that rural customers often wanted “city” goods but their access to them was very limited. Ward believed that by eliminating intermediaries, he could cut costs and make a wide variety of goods available to rural customers, who could buy via the mail and pick up their orders at the nearest train station.

After several false starts, including the destruction of his first inventory by the Great Chicago Fire (October 1871), Ward and his two business partners raised $1,600, re-opened their warehouse above a livery stable on Chicago’s north side (see below), and issued their first catalog on August 27, 1872 – an 8″ × 12″ single-sheet flyer listing 163 items for sale via mail-order.

Admittedly, over the first few years, Ward’s business met with a much resistance, with rural retailers publicly burning his catalog. Things were looking pretty bleak until a partnership developed with the six-year old fraternal organization, The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. Because farmers trusted The Grange, when Ward used their mailing list to promote his new mail-order business, everything began to turn around.

A classic RFD mailbox. Rural Free Delivery brought the world to the farmer’s front gate, and then to his front door. In addition, the mail-order industry as a whole would benefit from a Post Office decision that catalogs fell within the “educational material” category and could be mailed at a reduced rate. Click here for more info.

With the help of RFD (Rural Free Delivery) and reduced postage costs on magazines, Montgomery Ward grew at a fast pace over the next several decades, fueled by rural customers who were inspired by the wide selection of items that were locally unavailable. Customers were also thrilled by the innovative company policy of “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” a policy Ward pioneered in 1875.

Iowa’s own, Meredith Willson, put into song the excitement Iowa townspeople felt when USPS’s RFD (Rural Free Delivery) and other companies like Wells Fargo delivered “dry goods” from far away. In this classic, Wells Fargo Wagon, listen for Willson’s line … “Montgomery Ward sent me a bathtub and a cross-cut saw!”

So, back to M. H. Bailey’s furniture order…

While, we don’t know what furniture Bailey ordered from the Montgomery Ward Wish Book, we do know where the furniture ended up.

The Mathew & Anna (Edna) Bailey Residence – 214 Davenport in 1889.
Here’s 214 E. Davenport today – the current home was built in 1925.

Matthew and Anna Bailey and Family – Iowa City’s ‘English’ Couple.

The 1885 Iowa Census shows Matthew (age 37) and Edna (Anna – age 35) Bailey living in the 2nd Ward of Iowa City, with five children: Annie (13), Charles (11), Ella (8), Frederick (6), and another child Jennie Kohler (4).

Bailey family records show that both Matthew (1847) and Anna (1849) were born near Southampton, England, married there on October 12, 1871, and had their first child, Anna, before moving to Iowa City in March of 1873.

Sadly, Anna died at the young age of 48 in 1897, and Matthew passed at age 62 in 1909. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. We’re assuming the Montgomery Ward furniture was passed on to the kids!

Montgomery Ward & Company 1890 – 1920.

Montgomery Ward’s first major expansion was their 1892 Mail Order Establishment building on Michigan Avenue. The Michigan Central and Illinois Central Railroads had freight houses just across Michigan Avenue – making for speedy delivery across the country.
It didn’t take long for Montgomery Ward & Co. to become an almost mythical component in American popular culture. When farm families from across the nation visited Chicago and the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the Montgomery Ward Building on Michigan Avenue held nearly as much interest for them as the White City. Urban residents wanted to see Marshall Field’s; small-town folk and farmers were interested in Montgomery Ward’s.

In 1896, Wards encountered its first serious competition in the mail order business, when Richard Warren Sears introduced his first general catalog. In 1900, Wards had total sales of $8.7 million, compared to $10 million for Sears. By 1904, Wards had expanded to such a dregree that it mailed three million catalogs, weighing 4 lbs each, to customers.

In 1908, the company opened a 1.25-million-square-foot building stretching along nearly one-quarter mile of the Chicago River, north of downtown Chicago. The building, known as the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House, served as the company headquarters until 1974, when the offices moved across the street to a new tower designed by Minoru Yamasaki. The catalog house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and a Chicago historic landmark in May 2000.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Aaron Montgomery Ward and his amazing mail-order business. While Wards, Sears, and others like them are pretty much gone today, Ward’s idea of easy shopping, big inventory, fair prices, fast delivery, and money-back guarantees still lives on!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Montgomery Ward, Wikipedia

Montgomery Ward Buildings, Industrial History, March 5, 2016

Montgomery Ward and the Wish Book, Megan McKinney, Classic Chicago Magazine, July 26, 2020

Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue and Buyers’ Guide (1895), 2015 reprint edited by Nick Lyons, Amazon.com

Matthew Henry Bailey & family, 1885 Census, 2nd Ward, Iowa City, Ancestry.com

Matthew Henry Bailey, Wikipedia

Anna Wickham Bailey, Wikipedia

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