The Confusing and Confused A. Montgomery Ward


I have not blogged in a while but I have been busy on my book projects.  I am shepherding Examined Lives through the publication process and researching and writing Coming to Amerika.  I have written a great deal about United States history in my life, but working with my family documents I have learned much that I did not know before.  It is totally engrossing and I hope the product will be so to others.

I, however, have not forgotten Montgomery Ward.  Today I started working with the large amount of material available at the Chicago History Museum.  In just a few short hours I was in the midst of controversies about his birthdate and in which house in Chatham, New Jersey he was actually born.  The birthdate I had long ago settled; the controversy arose from sloppy estimate of ages in the early censuses.  The house is really not material.  But among the documents was a copy of a brief memorandum Ward had handwritten himself in about 1890 about his life.  Historians had quoted from this memorandum, but this was the first time I had read the whole thing.

In my blog post What’s in A Name? I had discussed the origin of his name.  Among all the accounts I had read which quoted from his memorandum, no one had quoted on this topic.  So it was a total surprise to me to find Ward saying that he was named after Gen. A. Montgomery Ward of the French and Indian War and brother to his great-grandfather Captain Israel Ward.  I of course have immediately investigated.  First, there was no General named A. Montgomery Ward who fought in the French and Indian War and second, Israel Ward did not have a brother named A. Montgomery Ward.  As I discussed in my abovementioned blog, Israel Ward had a son named Aaron Montgomery Ward, who was our Ward’s grandfather.  So what was going on here?

This is speculation on my part, but speculation based on circumstances.  As a young child we do not know what story our Ward was told and he may have gotten it garbled.  He never met his grandfather, who died in 1841, several years before his birth in 1844.  In addition, Ward’s grandfather was not in Chatham when he died, but for whatever reason he had gone westward and died in Chicago, Illinois.  There is obvious irony in this given what happened later.

What I said in What’s in A Name? still stands.  Even a primary source can be confused.

The Restless and Ambitious Montgomery Ward


According to the census records, in 1860 Aaron Montgomery Ward was living with his family in Niles, Michigan with a listed occupation of shoemaker, his father’s trade.  Just 12 years later he was founding his company.  That was a spectacular journey.

Ward was a young man with ambition who looked to do better in life than be a shoemaker.   His father’s trade had hardly bettered his family’s straitened circumstances.   Soon after 1860 Ward moved to St. Joseph, Michigan and worked first in a shoe store and then in a general country store, working his way up to general manager, continually earning better money.

Later in life Ward described himself as “self-educated, self-made” and his succeeding jobs certainly bear witness to that.  After the Civil War he went to Chicago and first sold corn salve (under what circumstances remains to be investigated).  1865, however, saw him employed as a traveling salesman for the Case & Soben Lamp Co., probably to stores in the Midwest.  Next he spent two years in Chicago with the dry goods firm of Field, Palmer & Leiter (forerunner of Marshall Field & Company).  He then switched employers and worked for Willis, Greg, Brown & Co. until they folded.  He had a cousin Thomas Budd in St. Louis and worked as a traveling salesman for him for the Walter M. Smith Co., this time traveling to country stores in the South.  He returned to Chicago and was employed by C.W. & E. Pardridge & Co., for whom he worked while he was organizing his own venture.

Why he changed jobs so often—more money, more challenge and experience or all three—I would not venture to speculate now.  But certainly he was restless and striving and obviously learned a lot about salesmanship.  Indeed he was to become one of the greatest salespeople of all times.

What’s in a Name?

Sources on the life of Aaron Montgomery Ward, including a privately printed genealogy prepared for Ward’s daughter by the American History Society, state that his name derived from that of a Revolutionary War General, to whom he was related or at least was named after.  I had no reason to question so abundant “evidence,” but I wanted to determine just why this general had special meaning for Ward’s family.

To my shock, I found out that nobody had checked out this story all these years.  There is no General Aaron Montgomery Ward!  So where did the name come from and why is it connected in family lore with the Revolutionary War?  The first name Aaron is not such a puzzle as it is a Biblical and common enough first name.  It is the “Montgomery” which puzzled me as I could find no evidence of its appearance as part of a Ward family name until the Revolutionary War period.

The first of our Aaron Montgomery Ward’s ancestors to bear the name was his grandfather, who was born in 1776.  This Aaron Montgomery Ward was the son of Captain Israel Ward, a captain in the Eastern Battalion (also known as the New Jersey Brigade) during the Revolutionary War and an ardent supporter of independence.  On December 31, 1775 General Richard Montgomery was killed leading an attempt during a blizzard to take Quebec.  Given the fact that Israel’s son was born soon after, the best explanation of his including Montgomery in his son’s name was to commemorate this fallen hero.  Our Montgomery Ward then would have been named after his grandfather.

As I have discussed in my blog on A Soldier Called Henry Smith, family stories often are wrong but have a grain of truth in them.  I think in the case of Ward family history there was a confusion of a story about the name being associated with a general and the fact that there was a famous Ward general, Artemis Ward, who among other achievements oversaw the Battle of Bunker Hill.  Artemis Ward was, however, no relation of Aaron Montgomery Ward .

Chronicles tend to feed on and repeat each other.  Done enough times, statements get taken for facts.  It requires going back to original sources to set the record straight.  It looks like I have a lot more digging behind stories ahead of me.


The Surprises, Joyful and Sad, of Family Research

When I began writing Examined Lives about how my mother came to have a lobotomy by Walter Freeman and the ramifications for my own life, I did not know what I would find.  I had of course known my mother before she had her lobotomy (I was almost seven at the time) and afterwards.  I did not, however, have any idea of what she was like before my birth.  She rarely mentioned that period of her life.  So, discovering this was one of the surprises of my family research.  I found a mother I had never known.

This discovery was a joyful one.  I read carefully through all the scrapbooks, 5-year diary. photographs and books in which she wrote down poetry she loved including Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Milay.  These covered the time between her 15th birthday and her marriage at the age of 23.  The picture which emerged was of a vivacious, competent woman who devoured life.  In high school she had a bevy of friends, was totally boy crazy, briefly made money as part of a dancing team, participated in basketball and loved swimming and skating. She could be something of a scamp, making a nun at her parochial school angry. In her diary she comments: “Gee! I had fun but was she mad.” She told her diary that “I crave excitement.”

On coming to Chicago on her 20th birthday, she found her excitement. The first thing she and the friends who accompanied her did was take a speedboat ride on the Chicago River and the next day she got a job waitressing at a party for the prize fighter Jack Dempsey.  It was the beginning of her rise in the hospitality industry.  She took up residence and worked in the area around North Michigan, then as now a bustling, swanky place to be. She started out as a waitress at the lunch counter of the Walgreen’s Drug Store at Rush and Oak, which served breakfast, lunch and dinner and offered for dinner as drinks of choice domestic Port, Sherry or Muscatel Wine as well as fruit juice and chilled tomato juice.  This store served sometimes over a 1000 patrons a day. She soon became its night manager, then moved on to become the head receptionist at the Younkers Café on East Chicago where she managed 12 waitresses, including Ruth “a sad piece of humanity who was a streetwalker on the side.” Finally, she reached what she considered the pinnacle as room captain at the Camelia Room of the Drake Hotel frequented by the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.

Outside of work she enjoyed Chicago to the full, taking art classes at the American Academy of Art, having a bit part in a production of Richard Sheridan’s “School for Scandal,” and attending concerts and plays starring John Barrymore and Lillian Gish.  With various swains and friends, she took in the night clubs.  In just one night she visited the Dome of the Sherman, Rickett’s, Ye Old Cellar, Old Heidelburg, Adolfo’s, Augustino’s and the Blue Star. One evening she and a date spied an empty baby carriage in an apartment hall. They stole it, she got in and her date pushed her down Rush Street.

It was wonderful to meet this woman, my mother, who I had known as caring and kind, but not very sophisticated or interested in things like poetry.  Given what was to happen to her later in life, I am grateful that she had this period in which to shine.  It makes the lobotomy, however, all that much more dreadful and unwarranted.

Nevertheless, the saddest surprise for me in my research was the poem I found among my father’s possessions, clearly revealing his loss of love for my mother fairly early in their marriage, even before my birth.  It is a much worked over scrawl but with the beginning words clearly “I could adore her/but I abhor her.”  That discovery hit me in the stomach and eventually went on to explain much.