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Mail Order Giants | Chicago Stories

Mail Order Giants

The catalogs of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., and Montgomery Ward were icons of Americana, beloved and eagerly anticipated. More than just a collection of necessities and Christmas wishes, the items within the many pages of those catalogs reflected the aspirations of American families, as well as the power of companies to shape how people shopped and what they bought. The rise and fall of these mail order giants is intertwined with the history of Chicago and the rest of America.

Shoppers at Montgomery Ward in 1971

The Rise and Fall of Chicago’s Mail Order Giants

Shoppers at Montgomery Ward in 1971. Image: ST-30004578-0066, Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum

In the late nineteenth century, Chicago’s location at the center of the country where railroads and industries converged made it an ideal location for entrepreneurs looking to make a buck – or millions of them. Aaron Montgomery Ward and Richard Warren Sears did just that. Each created a mail order catalog that evolved into a retail icon, changing American consumer habits along the way. While Sears and Montgomery Ward’s innovative ways of operating led to their rise as the Amazon of their time, new innovations would contribute to their decline a century later… Read more

The former Montgomery Ward Warehouse Complex at 618 West Chicago Avenue is pictured here circa the 1960s.

Then and Now: The Chicago Sites Where Sears and Montgomery Ward Became Giants

The Montgomery Ward Warehouse Complex. Images: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-173785

The end of the twentieth century would see the decline of two mail order giants: Montgomery Ward and Sears. Though other retail and e-commerce giants have long since taken their place as consumers’ favorites, the two companies left an indelible mark on Chicago and its landscape. In fact, each company had at one time a building that was the tallest in the city. Some of the structures that housed these titans still remain, while others have drastically changed or have undergone a significant name change. Explore the history of six Chicago locations connected to Montgomery Ward and Sears … Read more

Robert Lewis May wrote the original Rudolph story.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Is a Chicagoan

Robert Lewis May wrote the original Rudolph story. Image: Chicago Tribune / TCA

You likely recall that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the most famous reindeer of all. But did you know that Rudolph was born in Chicago?

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is completely a Chicago concoction,” Kori Rumore, a reporter who has covered the topic for the Chicago Tribune, told Chicago Stories.

In 1939, a man named Robert Lewis May was working as a catalog copywriter for mail order and retail giant Montgomery Ward. The company approached him with an idea. They were looking for a way to attract more customers to their toy department to keep up with Sears, their main competitor. Executives came up with the idea to have May, who was known for being a clever writer, compose a children’s story that would be distributed in stores around the holidays. May was a creative man at heart who had once aspired to write novels.

“He was tired of writing copy about…how to sell a white button-down shirt,” Rumore said. “This was really up his alley.”

The result was a 32-page children’s booklet of rhyming verse that follows Rudolph from outcast, teased for his bright red nose, to hero who helps guide Santa and the eight other reindeer on a dark, foggy Christmas Eve … Read more

Buckingham Fountain in the foreground, with the Willis Tower and other downtown Chicago buildings in the background.

The Chicago Institutions Connected to the Mail Order Giants

The people behind Chicago’s mail order giants gave the city more than the Wish Book and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Some of the leaders of Montgomery Ward and Sears are connected to other Chicago institutions, such as parks, museums, and even an historic, local YMCA.

If you’ve ever attended the Taste of Chicago Festival, Lollapalooza, or strolled around Grant Park, you have Aaron Montgomery Ward to thank for that, in part. Ward was the founder of mail order and retail giant Montgomery Ward, but he also played a major role in ensuring that the city’s lakefront remained a greenspace to be used by the people of Chicago … Read more


Historical photo of the Sears Sunken Garden

Ask Geoffrey: The Sears Sunken Garden

While Chicago may be on the verge of a particularly brutal cold snap, warmer days are just around the corner ... we hope.

To give us a little taste, Geoffrey Baer explores the past, present and future of a historic West Side garden in this week’s Ask Geoffrey.

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Lead support for Chicago Stories is provided by The Negaunee Foundation.

Major support is provided by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, TAWANI Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, and the Donna Van Eekeren Foundation.

Funding for Chicago Stories: The Rise and Fall of the Mail Order Giants is provided by Eleanor Parker in loving memory of Curt Parker, and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Shaw.