Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Golden Age of Montgomery Ward

High on the list of late, lamented retail chains would have to be Montgomery Ward & Company. For nearly 130 years Americans shopped at Wards, both through their legendary mail-order catalog and at their store locations.

The early years of Montgomery Ward are well documented in history books – a young entrepreneur starts a mail-order catalog business, supplying even the remotest areas with essential goods for home and farm. Eventually, the company would open a chain of retail stores to go along with its catalog business.

And of course, most of us are familiar with the Wards of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s - the mall stores, which grew increasingly dowdy as the company desperately searched for a winning formula to succeed in the brave new retail world. (Remember the “Electric Ave.” electronics departments?)

Between those two eras is a relatively brief period that is more or less overlooked today –Ward’s massive store construction program of the late 1950’s and 60’s. In 1958 the company, having failed to open new locations for many years at that point and in grave danger of being forgotten by the buying public, kicked off a very aggressive building program. Fifty new stores were opened in the next three years, many of which were major mall or shopping center locations. On top of this, hundreds of existing smaller stores were remodeled.

In my opinion, the Montgomery Ward stores of this era, a ten-year period starting in 1958, were some of the best looking retail stores ever. Pictured above is the very first store of what can be called Ward’s “golden age” (of mall stores, at least), at Denver, Colorado’s Lakeside Shopping Center. The 120,000 square foot, two-story store’s opening ceremonies were held on August 13, 1958. In back of the Wards store is The Denver Dry Goods Co. and to the right is a Lerner Shops store.


  1. That photo looks exactly like the Monkey Wards that still occupies a prominent place at the State Road Shopping Plaza in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. I mean, right down to the 60s lettering! When I moved here and saw that dinosaur, I was shocked. Last year the city of CF bought the whole State Road Plaza for $10 million and plans to raze it this year and redevelop it. I'm not sure how successful that will be, but I will really miss the old 60's-style Montgomery Wards building. Wish I could put it in a time capsule! Oh wait, it is a time capsule!

  2. Monkey Wards seemed to always have an identity crisis as to what to call themselves...Montgomery Ward, Montgomery WARD, or just Wards!

  3. The identity crisis also extended to their merchandising. Their clothing wasn't really competitive with Penney's (Penney's quality was better) and Sears was stronger in most of the hard lines and appliance areas. They never really built strong identities for their house brands, either. Their effort at carving out shops was inspired but they had trouble competing with the better managed big boxes.

    Because they were relatively late into key metros areas like LA, Montgy Wards was always handicapped with second string locations. In Chicago, they co-developed malls with Carson's and Wieboldt's which meant that they were in good if somewhat second-tier malls there. they wound up with similar kinds of locations in the DC area.

    For most people, they never really established themselves as the store you'd visit first for a lot of purchases.

  4. The MW at Yorktown Mall in Lombard IL was opened in 1968. It was empty for a long time after the big closure of 2001. Was torn down about 3 years ago in place of an open air 'center', with mostly restaurants.

    MW was always 'also ran' to me, never big as Sears, nice as JCP, or cheap as discounters.

  5. Dixie Square Mall, one of the most infamous malls ever, had a Montgomery Wards. That is the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I think of Ward's. I've never actually been in a Ward's, either. For some reason, they never made any in my part of New England.

  6. A lot of Montgomery Wards stores here in Southern California were relatively unchanged on the outside from the time they opened to the time they closed. Some changed their Logo, only one did an exterior remodel (Del Amo Mall - only for it to be torn down after it closed). They all looked stuck in the 60's or 70's.

    Several stores still are vacant today. One of the best is the Huntington Beach, CA store. It was an anchor to the HB Mall, which itself was torn down (except for the anchors) and redevolped. It apparently is owned by a different group than the mall and as of two weeks ago, still standing, just rotting away while the entire mall around it got redone.

    The only other store that I can recall that is vacant and empty is in San Bernardino, which closed before the chain went under. It was an anchor to the Central City Mall / Carousel Mall.

    Most MW stores here became Target stores. A lot of those stores are 2-level stores that used the original floor plan of the MW. Only a couple were completely torn down (and these generally were smaller MW stores).

    1. The large Shreveport MW is still standing and looks the same as when it was built in 1974. The whole mall is owned by a church now. There's photos of it on this site and at labelscar and the southernmallsblogspot.

  7. I agree with the comments about MW always being second-tier. Furthermore, they also seemed to have second-tier real estate often locating in two anchor malls, or malls that eventually were off the beaten path. Ironically, with Ohio being so close to MW's home turf, I always wondered why they didn't have a large presence in this state.

    Dave also omits one important factor in the downfall of Montgomery Ward and that was during the late-1960's or early-1970's when they became part of Mobil. Mobil bought them during the conglomerate era for the sake of diversification. But Mobil bought while these stores were at their profitable peak. Combine declining margins with not knowing how to run a retail operation, and this permanently hobbled MW. During Mobil's tenure, just the real estate opportunities MW lost were enough to hobble the chain.


  8. OK, you drive me crazy! Where do you find such wonderful old retail pics? If you have a time machine, you need to share! :P Great and informative site.

  9. Here in the Chicago area we had Wards everywhere, although I admit I never really cared to shop there. But I did get a really nice Walter Payton replica jersey which I still own, so there's one good memory! :)

  10. Great post, I was hoping you would focus on Wards! We had a great "best decade" Wards here at the Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park. It was a biggie and had all the goodies; auto (gas & service), Garden shop, catalog, coffee shop, candy counter, it had it all. It always seemed like they were playing catchup to Sears.

    My best friend worked at Wards Canoga park when it closed (around 2000) that was a sad day. We went back later after it closed and got a few items from the cashier cage (coin holders, old notes, etc)

  11. I second that request for Dave to share his time machine. :o)

    "Electric Avenue" Heh, heh, heh, the song by Eddy Grant. Didn't they use that in their ads or something?

    My first experience with Wards was moving to Chicago in the late 80s. though they were in Ohio, I don't think they were ever close enough to Clevaland for us to go. When my parents discovered Wards they loved it. We regularly went to the one at Addison Mall (now a 2 level Target I frequent almost every week). Occasionally we also shopped at the ones at north Riverside and the Brickyard and later the location at Village Crossing in Niles (now a Dick's Sporting Goods).

    They bought lots of furniture that lasted throughout the years and I never understood the negativity reflected at Wards. I liked them. I was sad to see them go.

  12. I remember going to Montgomery Ward in the that time at least, it was hardly discernible from other mall department stores...we'd go on family trips to southern Maine and Portsmouth-area New Hampshire, and by the time we were done with Jordan Marsh (later Macy's) and Filene's, the trip to Wards (then located in New Hampshire's now-defunct Newington Mall) was typically met with a bevy of groans and complaints from my brother and I..."oh, not ANOTHER one!" At that point in time, the only thing worse was when we had to go to all the housewares outlets in Kittery, Maine... ;-D

    In retrospect, though, I wish I'd paid a bit more attention. :-(

  13. What do you mean the stores looked stuck in the 60's and 70's?

  14. Adrienne – Wow, that is a true museum piece! I found this blog with pictures of it- amazing!

    It really appears to in really good shape, too, and even the signage is still in place. That’s one I’d love to see before it’s torn down!

    Jamcool- And they never did figure it out. The two different types of signage were one thing, but I think their lack of direction in merchandising was the biggest problem.

    Anonymous – Great point. Wards always focused on Sears, their catalog rival from the ancient pre-store days, but Penneys was every bit as much of a threat, if not more. Along with strong regionals such as the ones you mention.

    And I totally agree their late West Coast entry hurt them, but they were a latecomer to malls in general, regardless of location. DC was actually one of their better markets, believe it or not.

    Tomcat – Yorktown was always one of my favorite malls, though I didn’t get out there often. Probably to the theatre (a General Cinema, of course) more than anywhere else in the mall. I was out that way last month, and it sure has changed! I agree with your assessment of Wards’ standing in those categories.

    Panda - Dixie Square has to be one of the most famous Wards stores, that’s for sure! And part of it is still around! (Half of one wall, I think…)

    Jeff - MW never seemed to be big on exterior remodels, but where the 60’s stores are concerned, I don’t consider that a bad thing! Thanks for the info on the status of those malls. Target sure has done some interesting conversions in Southern California, between the Wards and Gemco units!

    Dan – That is surprising that Wards didn’t have more stores in Ohio, I would have thought it could be a huge market for them, especially with the close proximity. I know that DeBartolo built a few Wards stores there, including the Cuyahoga Falls store Adrienne mentioned above. Seems like they built many more outside of Ohio, though. The second-tier status to me owes a lot to their later start in building major stores.

    Also, this was really intended to be kind of an introductory, overview type post. I definitely have a lot to say about the “Mobil connection”. Hopefully we’ll get there soon! :)

    Giacomo – Man, I wish! Just old trade magazines, company press, postcards and other treasures from Ebay when I can find them.

    And if I had a time machine, it would all be in color! :)

    Kim – For only having one Wards item (which is more than I have), that’s a great one! I miss Walter. Got to see him a few times when I was a kid, when he signed pictures for Buick at the Chicago Auto Show. I can’t imagine ever being into a sports team again as much as I was with the Bears in the mid-80’s.

    Tim- Man, you at the Canoga Park Sears and your friend later on at Wards – the Valley’s classic retail duo! I’ll bet you had some great stories to exchange! And thanks!

    Didi – I’m still working on the flux capacitor. And about the “Electric Ave.” departments, I can’t remember if they used the song in their ads or not, but every time I saw an ad or the sign at Wards the song just jumped into my head. Very effective, free advertising!

    My Dad worked for the main chair supplier (recliners, etc.) to Wards in the early 70’s, and they were by far his biggest customer. Wards sold a ton of furniture in those days.

    Kendra – Ah, being dragged on those long shopping trips…those were the days! My interest in old stores certainly wouldn’t have been predictable given my general attitude about it at that time. I can remember Jordan Marsh from the visits to my grandparents in RI (I did look forward to going to Friendly’s afterward though!). And Filene’s of course is Macy’s now as well. I’m guessing that Kittery is one of those “outlet as tourist destination” places.

    The one store I remember going to in Maine was the L.L. Bean main store in Freeport. I believe that was before they had any other physical locations. It was a really old looking building with exposed wooden ceilings quite a while back. I remember it as being very cool!

    Mike – I think Jeff was referring to the fact that Wards wasn’t big on exterior remodels of existing stores. Again, that’s good with me!

  15. Dave...I miss Walter, too. He is my hero, and died way too soon. I never had the chance to meet him. :(

  16. I agree.

    There's no reason to remodel anything just because it's old.

    Plus how many out there even care about that?

  17. Montgomery Wards is in my fond memories. One to note here on the west coast was the HUGE Montgomery Wards Building in Oakland, CA. It was a tall building that stood out on the outskirts of Downtown Oakland, on E. 14th St which handled many catalog merchandise. They had a huge retail store on the lower levels which I remember as a child in the mid 1970's. It had a restaurant and Auto center also. Upper levels held offices and warehouse. In later years it became a 'Outlet' or Clearance Center. Wards moved out in the 1990's. I believe it was built in the 1920's and there was a group trying to preserve the building as historical before it was finally demolished to build a school. I remember the huge neon signs "Montgomery Ward" on the top of the building that lit up the evening skies!

  18. There's no reason to remodel anything just because it's old.

    I do agree with that 100%

    Plus how many out there even care about that?

    Unfortunately, there are too many people concerned with appearance and looking out of date.

  19. Unfortunately, there are too many people concerned with appearance and looking out of date.

    Well, the folks at Kmart apparently agreed with the two of you and look where that got them. People like shiny, bright, new, clean. Everybody loves the new car smell.


  20. Montgy Wards did have an odd pattern of establishing stores. They had catalog stores in Cleveland that dated from sometime in the 50s, but the nearest full-line store was in Cuyahoga Falls (mentioned earlier and built in the 1950s). For many years that shopping center was owned by the Cathedral of Tomorrow (Rex Humbard's ministry)--did they buy it from DeBartolo or did they develop it?

    In Ohio, their major presence was in Toledo, which is not far from Detroit, which was a major market for them, as well as Akron-Canton. My guess is that they stayed out of Cleveland and Cincy because each had a large number of department stores into the 1960s, including budget oriented chains like Bailey's in Cleveland. This wouldn't explain why they skipped Columbus or why JC Penney entered Cleveland in a big way in the 50s, but didn't get to Cincy until much later.

    Wards also didn't have an Indy presence until they bought some Block's stores that Federated didn't want. Lazarus was already in that market, so the redundant Blocks became Wards.

  21. And speaking of old ... I know this is off-topic, but I was in the Cleveland-area today and was surprised to see a kitschy/googie-style Sears "Southland at Pearl Rd. and 130th St. The entrance treatments alone are worth a picture -- too bad I didn't have a camera.


  22. Well, the folks at Kmart apparently agreed with the two of you and look where that got them. People like shiny, bright, new, clean. Everybody loves the new car smell.

    I'll admit I am one of those people always concerned with my appearance but that doesn't mean I'd tear my perfectly good self down because I looked too unpolished.

  23. The pic from Lakeside Mall was an interesting one to see since I used to live right near there. The mall still exists, but is a sad shade of what it used to be. has a link to a great site that shows what the MW became (a local, Mexican-themed supermarket chain):

  24. ... actually, in regards to my last comment, I forgot one important bit of info...

    They are tearing down the old Lakeside Mall, according to one of my Denver pals. The plan as I last heard it is that the old mall will be replaced with a mixed use, shops on the lower levels/residential on the upper floors setup.

    It's amazing how things change!

  25. Having grown up in the Deep South, Montgomery Ward never had major presence outside of Florida. Yet I always knew the store was a "Sears knockoff" in reputation. MW would arrive at Savannah Mall in 1990, giving the chain its first Georgia presence in several decades.

    Of the mid-range mass merchandise department stores, I think the pecking order of quality perception was
    1) Penney's
    2) Sears
    3) Montgomery Wards
    a perception that was established by the 1960s and lasted until Wards demise.

    Penney's was able to use its higher end perception to move away from hardlines to selling more profitible softlines while Sears stuck with its old formula, unsuccessfully improving its softlines sales and quality. Wards seemed to be less successful with overcoming its poor quality image, most people regarded the quality of discount store merchandise as better than Wards merchandise.

    By the end of its existence, Wards tried to jazz up its image with Electric Avenue. By then the big box electronic stores were a strong presence, and they never succeeded with this move, which they really seemed to put all their hopes for the future behind.

  26. Kim – There will never be another like him. That’s the sad part of all the otherwise great “1985 Bears” retrospectives that show up on ESPN and other places from time to time.

    Mike (and Didi) – I think if stores keep the interiors up, the exteriors are usually better off left alone. A dingy interior is a much bigger turnoff that a dated but interesting façade.

    Mr. Bluelight – You must be referring to the late 1920’s Wards catalog warehouse. It’s a shame they demolished it. The Fort Worth Wards Catalog warehouse has been preserved (although it took a long and controversial battle) as a combination of condos and specialty retail. I drove by it on a recent trip and thought it looked fantastic. They’ve modified the huge neon signs atop the building to read “MONTGOMERY PLAZA”, the new name of the complex.

    Dan – Store appearance is just one of Kmart’s many problems. Their “updates” look less in-style, to me, than their original look!

    Anonymous – All I know for sure is that DeBartolo built the Cuyahoga Falls store. I don’t know how long, if at all, they owned it. Thanks for that info on the Ohio Wards markets! It is surprising how long they held back from such strong middle American cities.

    Dan – Let us know when you get a picture of it!

    Didi – Tear yourself down? Don’t do that! :)

    Kathleen – Wow, thanks for that link! The difference is amazing – you’d never it was once a milestone store for such a historic American company! Sad to see it go, even with its current state.

    Ken – It is amazing how Wards pretty much ignored the entire South, one of the country’s fastest growing regions, except for Florida until very late in the game. I think your pecking order is basically on target from around 1970 on, but there was very little difference between them in the 1960’s. They all had a decent reputation for quality. In the 60’s Penneys placed a huge emphasis on hard lines, as they were a late entry to the field. When hardlines became no longer profitable for department stores, Penneys did the best job of refocusing on softlines, their traditional strength.

    The Electric Ave. departments seemed a bit desperate to me even then, but I definitely would give them points for trying something differen

  27. My mother worked in the gift wrapping dept at the Montgomery Ward in Norwalk, CA in the late 60's and early 70's. Having survived and endured Catholic school for my elementary and junior high years, Wards was the go-to place for navy blue corduroys and short sleeve white dress shirts. I remember I dreaded seeing those "Back-To-School" banners that would start blooming all over the store in late August!

    Christmas was always an event at Wards! The Mattel exclusives! The Winter Wonderland in the toy dept. Before Norwalk got it's first Licorice Pizza, MW was the place to get the latest top 40 singles (those old 45's)!

    Like many MW stores, this one is now a Target.