Saturday, April 25, 2009

Inside the New Wards Stores, Late 50's

These are some of the scenes that greeted customers of the new Montgomery Ward stores in the late 1950’s. A far cry from the stodgy interiors that shoppers had grown to associate with Wards, they represent nice examples of fifties modern design, color styling and craftsmanship.

Just as the exterior design and materials differed from store to store, the new Wards interiors varied as well, although some common themes carried through. The elongated oval signage, visible in several of the photos (and also in the remodeled Sacramento store in the previous post) was extensively used. It kind of echoes the “long, low” trend that was all the rage in automotive design at the time.

Larger, mall-based Wards stores featured “central decorative display islands, surrounded by upholstered benches, provid(ing) a haven for the weary and a meeting place for all”. Pictured in the first photo above, these islands featured a unique motif keyed to the store’s locality – an Oak tree for the Kansas City, Missouri, Blue Ridge Shopping Center store, an Aspen tree in the Denver Lakeside Mall store, a vertical steel I-beam at the Gary, Indiana Village Shopping Center (They also were great for holding up the roof!), and a sundial in a new St. Petersburg, Florida unit. Exteriors of all stores except the last are pictured in previous posts.

There were nods to the past as well, in the form of vintage Wards catalog merchandise pictured on the walls of the furniture department (called the “Modern Shop” – how cool is that?), as shown in the second photo, the tool department (photo three) and the mens' department (back wall of last photo), among others. It was a small, early example of marketing through nostalgia, a trend that would gain much more steam in the 60’s and especially the 70’s.

Montgomery Ward still had tons of ground to make up from the “lost years”, where they were routinely trounced by Sears and later by J.C. Penney as well. These fine stores, with their long-overdue added comfort of air conditioning, did much to put Wards back in play.

For me, I can’t decide what I like better – the Airline TV and Hi-Fi department or the “Modern Shop”. I’ll take both!

Top to bottom, the photos depict: (1) a typical themed “center island”, (2) the “Modern Shop” contemporary furniture department, (3) the Power Tools section, (4) the Childrens’ Wear department, with mannequins for all seasons, (5) the “real gone” Juniors department, (6) the Sporting Goods department (suits and ties to sell golf and archery equipment – now that’s class!), (7) the Airline Hi-Fi and Television department, a strong selling brand for Wards, (8) the Shoe department, where the older gentleman is holding a strange form of payment – oh yes, of course, it’s cash - and lastly, (9) something that would certainly be hard to come by in department stores today, shown in appropriate black-and-white, the ladies’ millinery department (That means "hat department" to folks like me), seen in the foreground of the photo.


  1. Where do I begin, Dave? Awesome pictures, of course. I love the vibrancy of the colors. I love teh idea of the nifty island in the first post. I have never seen anything like that anywhere. The Modern Shop is also one of my favs! What mid-mod enthusist wouldn't want any of that groovy furniture? I also love the design of the Junior dep't, almost sophisticated like. The TVs! Love the cute modern designs there as well. I also love the font type that is written in the Shoe department. The last photo is also very interesting. I love the hat of the woman getting off the escalator. All in all, who knew Wards was so cool!

  2. Didi - I agree, all of these scenes show a 'sense of cool' that I never associated with Wards. The Wards stores I remember were much more subdued. They had some great stuff in the early 60's as well which I hope to get around to here, but I think it's
    definitely time to change the subject!

  3. Great posts as always. Wards had so much more class back in the days before GE Capital took them over in the late 80's 1990's and eventually run the business down. So much history for Chicago and indeed is a part of American History. Great memories of the Wards Christmas Toy Catalogues! Hope to see more posts of MW soon!

  4. Mr. Bluelight - Thanks, I definitely plan to resume the Wards story soon. Just wanted to give people a break after spending quite a bit of time on the same subject. The most interesting stuff, from the 60's (at least as far as store appearance goes - there was certainly less drama at the home office than there was in the 40's and 50's) is coming up.

    There's no question that Wards has a significant place in our country's history. Thanks again!

  5. Man, what a great site! I just found it. I was born in '57, but remember going in these stores as a itty bitty boy with my mom. I have strong memories of these places, probably since she spent so much time there,:)

  6. Anonymous - Thanks, I appreciate it! I think the basis for so many of our memories is exactly what you've said - the sheer amount of time our moms (or dads or grandmas) spent in these places. These stores looked like this well into the sixties, so you weren't born too late!

  7. I have a question: was the oak tree fake or real?