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.

A Complicated Question with an Eventually Simple Answer

As I have been researching Montgomery Ward’s life, a question occurred to me which I had not seen discussed before.  Why didn’t he serve in the Civil War?  His future business partner, George R. Thorne, did.

As a young man Ward had tried two trades, brick and barrel making, and concluded that he was not “physically or mentally equipped” for them.  Thus one can understand his not wanting to volunteer for the grueling life of a soldier.  He did, however, appear on the Civil War Draft Registration Records drawn up in 1863.  So what happened?  I could find no record of his serving.  Had he somehow shirked his duty?

This led me to lengthy research about the draft based on official records for the State of Michigan, where Ward resided in Ward 1 in the city of Niles.  (He is listed as Aaron Ward.  His middle name was Montgomery.) Did the Draft Registration Records get his age wrong?  He is listed as 20 years old, the minimum age for drafting, but his birthdate the census record for 1860, on which the Draft Registration Records were based, only listed his age at that time, no birthdate.  He was actually born in 1844 so was too young in 1863 to be drafted. That would have been the case in 1863, but not in succeeding years.  Could he have paid someone to take his place?  I doubted that as he and his family were not well off and making such a payment would have been a great expense for them.  In fact, at the time of the compilation of the Draft Registration Records, Ward was actually in St. Joseph, Michigan working as a clerk in a dry goods store to help support his family.

I then went through the entire State of Michigan Draft Registration Records to find other men from Ward 1 on the list and to check on their service.  Each state was assigned a certain number of soldiers to raise and if the number was not met, the state would then turn to the draft.  Had enough soldiers volunteered from Niles that no draft was necessary?

Here indeed lay the simple answer.  There was no draft conducted in Niles.  The draft was highly unpopular and the Governor of Michigan at the time did everything in his power to drum up volunteers, including bounties [money for signing up] which increased as the war progressed.


So Ward did not avoid the draft.  He simply was not called up and did not want to volunteer.  Ward was intent on helping his family and making a way for himself in the world, which he of course did.

The Reticent A. Montgomery Ward





Living in Chicago for so many years, I of course have marveled at and enjoyed the miles of public park that line Lake Michigan.  As I learned of Montgomery Ward’s role in helping to preserve the lakefront for public use, at the expense of his own fortune and the ire of fellow businessmen, I came to admire him.  I could find no biography and learned that he revealed little of himself, preferring to remain out of the public spotlight and lead a very private life.  Even his philanthropy was handled discretely by an individual hired for the purpose.

So, I have set out on the task of trying to write a more complete telling of his life and character than has previously appeared.  I am helped by the fact that I am familiar with Niles, Michigan, where he grew up and where his parents and other relatives remained during their lifetimes, and have already come across articles in local newspapers that shed some light on him.  I will dig more there as well as at the Chicago History Museum, which houses the majority of papers dealing with him and his company.  It is not Montgomery Ward the company, however, in which I am interested, but Aaron Montgomery Ward the man.

I can think of no better way of introducing readers to Montgomery Ward the man than to compare the entry he prepared for the 4th edition of Who’s Who in America, published in 1906, with the entry written by fellow merchant Marshall Field.  Individuals prepared their own entries in answer to various questions and so the entries truly reflect their personalities.  Here is Field’s entry:

Field, Marshall, merchant; b. Conway, Mass., 1835; s. John and Fidelia (Nash) F.; spent boyhood on farm, studied at acad. until 1852; dry goods clerk, Pittsfield, Mass., 1852-6; in Chicago, 1856-60; junior partner, 1860-5, then senior partner in house, which became, 1865, Field, Palmer & Leiter’ Potter Palmer, retired, 1867, and Levi Z. Leiter, 1881, Mr. Field becoming head of Marshall Field & Co., now having the largest wholesale and retail dry goods business in the world.  Founded, with gift of $1,000,000 the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago; gave land worth $450,000 to Univ of Chicago; Dir., U.S Steel Corp., dir. Pullman Co., Chicago & Northwestern Ry. Co., Rock Island & Pacific Ry. Co., Merchants’ Loan & Trust Co.  Twice married: 2nd, London, September 5, 1905, Mrs. Della Spencer Caton of Chicago.  Residence: 1905 Prairie Av., Chicago.

Ward’s entry is shorter and much more modest:

Ward, A. Montgomery, mcht; b. Chatham, N.J. 1844; s. Sylvester A. and Julia L.M. (Greene) W; g.g.s. Capt. Israel Montgomery Ward of Revolutionary fame; self-ed. and self-made; m. Chicago, 1872, Elizabeth J. Cobb; Founded firm of Montgomery Ward & Co., 1872, of which he has since been pres.  Residence: The Kenwood.  Office: Mich. Ave. and Madison St., Chicago.

It is the “self-ed. and self-made” which strikes me as so revealing.  I have my work cut out for me in understanding and penetrating his life.