Friday, August 6, 2010

A Charming Day at Wards

A brief look inside some typical Montgomery Ward stores of the mid-60’s, as shown in some official publicity photographs. They’re staged, of course, but they provide a nice feel for the Wards shopping experience of that era.

Much has been said and written about the services that most “fine” department stores once provided to their clientele. Home delivery (for even the smallest orders), gift wrapping, “personal” shoppers, interior decorating services, playrooms for the kiddos and more - at one time it was a very extensive list, pared down through the years as rising costs made these niceties impractical for the stores to carry them on.

Less talked about today are those services once offered by the “mass market” department stores – Sears, Penney’s and Montgomery Ward, many of which continued into the 1970’s. In Wards’ case, these included outdoor living shows, fashion shows, and for many years a charm school, the proud graduates of which can be seen in the first photo above.

For roughly ten years starting in the early 60’s, the “Wendy Ward Charm Centers”, a fixture of the larger Wards stores of that period, stood at the ready, eager to help America’s young girls mature into women of taste and refinement. “We recognize the young girls of this community are seeking competent, professional instruction in personal grooming, etiquette and appearance”, read a 1965 newspaper article heralding the launch of the Randhurst Wendy Ward courses.

The courses were aimed at three age groups – “Little Miss” (ages 4 to 8), “Jr. Miss” (ages 9 to 12) and “Teens” (ages 13 to 19). A 1966 ad for the Madison, Wisconsin program spelled out the curriculum in detail: “ - Instructions in proper and natural make-up. – Art of being feminine and charming. – Hair care and individual styling. – Exercises and diets. – Arts of conversation. – To walk, sit, stand with poise.” There were modeling classes as well, as a lady from Florida fondly reflected upon in an email to me a while back.

So if you happen to meet a particularly charming woman who hails from the baby boom years, think “Yep. Wendy Ward grad.” Not sure it would be polite to ask her about it, though. (We guys didn’t have a “Monty Ward” class to teach us such things.) It’s a shame that no society-minded 21st century retailer has picked up the mantle and introduced a “charm center” program of its own. Rumors that Hot Topic is considering the idea are unsubstantiated at this point.

Wendy Ward wasn’t the only fictional female inhabiting the cavernous new Wards stores of the day. The versatile “Carol Brent” was another, and her name graced a multitude of Wards’ house brand ladies’ fashions and accessories. She reigned over the girls’ toy department as well - the Ideal Toy Co. even manufactured a line of Carol Brent dolls, a Barbie knockoff. Wards credit card applications bore her name instead of “Jane Q. Public” on the cover.

In one ad Wards answered “the burning question”, with then-popular Ogilvy-style directness, just in case anyone was curious: “Who’s Carol Brent? Nobody. She’s an idea and a promise. Carol Brent stands for our idea that a lot of fashion and a lot of quality don’t have to cost a lot of money….” (At least they didn’t say “She’s a concept by which we measure our pain”. Wait, that’s a John Lennon lyric…)

The other scenes are self-explanatory, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: a little girl at the camera counter (can’t say I ever saw a roll of Montgomery Ward film – probably performed similar to Anscochrome), a young couple examining Damask drapery fabric (a big seller back then) in Wards’ “Style House” home décor department, a friendly Wards representative hands over “hers-and-his” credit cards (brings back memories of Flintstones cartoons and Wilma and Betty's battle cry: "Charrrrge it!"), gassing up an even then-classic ‘Vette (I’m guessing it’s a 1958 model), the catalog counter (everybody had…matching glasses!), and a family enjoying the Sunday paper, including the comics…and the weekly Wards flyer, of course!

Below, some nice examples of mid-60’s Montgomery Ward advertising – first, a photo showing the company’s Easter and Christmas advertising insert flyers. Last up, thanks to a tip from reader Danny, are two wonderful circa 1967 tv spots aired on (and presumably produced by) Houston’s KIAH-TV. Two of the stores mentioned in the commercials are pictured on this previous post. Having grown up in Chicago and watched the primitive but charming local commercials produced by WGN, long before it became a national cable presence, these commercials sparked some wonderful memories. The first commercial opens with a grand opening announcement for the new Pasadena, Texas store, and the second (with slightly out-of-sync sound) features a lady who might really be better off using paper plates.


  1. I never realized that you could buy gas a a Montgomery Ward? I assume it's getting maintenance of some kind and the gentleman with his back to the camera is actually somehow involved with MW. I can't for the life of me determine what he's holding though.

  2. Oh, I am laughing so hard at the Wendy Ward charm school and the Hot Topic reference! Thank you for a great website!

  3. It’s a shame that no society-minded 21st century retailer has picked up the mantle and introduced a “charm center” program of its own. Rumors that Hot Topic is considering the idea are unsubstantiated at this point.

    Oh come on, Dave! Everyone knows that the class at Hot Topic is a mere hop skip and a jump away at the Hot Topic nearest you. Lesson Number One: How to apply bright orange eye shadow. (which I almost bought myself last time I was there. Someone talked me out of it) Lesson Number Two: How to dress as good as Marilyn Manson. Lesson Number Three: How to act like a band member from Metalica's early years.

    Kidding aside, I love these sets of photos. Realistic for being publicity shots. Weird to say, I know.

  4. Can I ask a dumb question? What's a catalog counter do, exactly? Just a place to go order something out of the catalog? Wouldn't that have been done over the phone by the sixties?

    I don't think my folks ever ordered anything from a Wards/Sears/Penneys catalog, so I've no idea how this would have worked.

  5. These are pretty groovy, especially the commercials.

  6. Chris – Good to hear from you! It was fairly common at the time of these photos for Penney’s, Wards and Sears auto centers to sell gas, though to my recollection a lot of them began to drop it in the 70’s, sticking instead with tires, batteries, oil changes and the like.

    Looks like it may an oil dipstick – the hood’s up!

    Rachel – Thanks so much – glad you enjoyed the site!

    The Hot Topic thing may be a bit farfetched, I realize… :)

    Didi – Maybe the idea’s a natural, after all…I can see the girls now with their “Tina Topic” certificates!

    Doug – You’re exactly right, that’s mainly what it was. Mail order had been around forever by that time, and ordering by phone, heavily promoted by that time, was gaining popularity, but lots of folks still preferred to place their orders in person. They would also pick their shipments up at those counters when they arrived.

    As a side note, I like the way Wards had the giant catalog replicas on the back wall.

    Steve – I agree, the commercials are great. I wish more examples from that far back were available.

  7. I really thought my mom was joking about sending me to Wendy Wards charm school when I belched at the dinner table. Guess she wasn't!

    One of my last Wards purchases, a lovely red boombox ca. 1986, is still functioning beautifully as our home workshop entertainment center.

    Too bad Wards didn't last that long, though honestly I don't miss them all that much.

  8. The more I learn about Wards, the more I realize how dull modern retailing has become. MW really deserved the iconic status that Sears and JCPenney have acheived, but due to a few misteps and miscalcualtions from the 50's onward, became an also ran until its eventual liquidation.

    I basically grew up with every mall having a JCPenney and Sears with 1 or 2 mid-range regional department stores filling the other anchor pads. For many years I thought every mall followed this basic configuration- ultimately most would. It would have been cool had Wards survived in the Southeast beyond some scattered stores. Christmas would have been especially great as I recall eagerly awaiting the Sears and Penney's wish books, adding a Monty Ward to the mix would have been too cool.

  9. Thanks for this powerful nostalgia.

    And thanks for the explanation of "Carol Brent," which makes it possible to appreciate the presence of her name and hometown ("Anywhere") in the first commercial.

  10. In reality how many little girls were disappointed that Santa brought them a Carol Brent doll instead of a Barbie? I wonder if any of those dolls are still around or if they ended up as unwanted/unloved toys that went to the dump.

    Of course we got our share of private label toys growing up, ranging from Otasco, Western Auto, Sears and Penney's, so I understand that a market for the would exist. I didn't really worry about what brand such things were until my teens, which by then was the go-go 80's. As a boy I didn't mind the red wagon being Western Flyer, but as a teen I didn't want a knock off Atari from Sears.

  11. Adrienne – No, your mom’s threat was real, I’m afraid! You obviously developed charm and manners on your own, so thankfully she didn’t have to resort to that. :)

    I remember my last two Wards purchases – a set of tires at North Riverside Park mall in ’87 (the place is now a Sears) literally the week I moved away from Chicago, and then around 1991 or so, my wife and I received a microwave oven as a gift, bought from Randhurst and shipped to us in Tennessee. We looked up the closest Wards, which was in Clarksville, an hour away (very cool 60’s-era store), and exchanged it for a then $100-dollar plus Wards-brand VCR. Lasted for years!

    Having said all that, I still miss the golden age of Sears more.

    Ken – I agree, especially in the 60’s, Wards’ marketing was excellent. Had they started earlier and then not faded away so fast, people would be more inclined to put them in league with Penneys and Sears. Their gigantic missteps in the 40’s and 50’s held them back for the rest of their existence.

    A wider geographic dispersion of stores (including the South as you cite) would have helped. And speaking as a fellow 70’s kid, the Wards Wish Book would have scored points with me. I think they did issue one for a good number of years, but only Sears and Penneys’ Christmas catalogs ever seemed to make it to our house.

    And addressing your other comment, I would imagine that Carol Brent might not have cut it with every girl as a substitute for the iconic, heavily advertised and accessory-rich Barbie. But I’m not in a great position to say one way or another! :)

    I agree with you on the wagons – I actually had a Wards “Hawthorne” brand wagon. The ones I really admired were the Radio Flyer wagons with the removable wooden sides, because mine was a standard steel wagon. I still had fun in it, though!

    Michael – You’re very welcome, thanks for commenting! I got a kick out of the very serious way Wards explained “Carol Brent”. Fun stuff!

  12. How cute/nostalgic... I miss Ward's. And I type this sitting in a chair purchased at Ward's shortly before it went to that big shopping mall in the sky...still pretty comfy, hehe.

  13. Nessa - Sounds like your chair was built to last...they've been in "that big shopping mall in the sky" for a while now...

    Very nice to hear from you - hope you're doing well!

  14. Love your blog. Wards had an earlier fictional icon in the '30s, named "Mary Ward". They even produced a soap opera around her. Mary advised young lovers, poor people, and oldsters about their problems, and for some reason the solution always involved Wards products!

    Several episodes survive; you can hear a sample here:

  15. I found this recollection of a California girl who was a Wendy Ward graduate:

    I grew up in Santa Ana, and one of my fondest memories is of attending the Wendy Ward Charm School which was located in the Montgomery Wards on 17th Street. Every Saturday we trekked upstairs, through the furniture department and spent a couple of hours learning how to paint our nails, walk and sit with good posture and conduct ourselves like ladies. Lots of lights and mirrors, costumes and instructional posters made that space very glamorous to my 10 year old girlie side.

    Serena, with the big blond hair and long red-lacquered fingernails was our instructor. The best part was when we got to go downstairs to the girls department and pick out 3 of the prettiest outfits we could find (and matching shoes of course!), which we then modeled during a fashion show on a Saturday afternoon. They had stage risers set up and music playing. I loved it!!