Montgomery Ward was founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward in 1872. Ward had conceived of the idea of a dry goods mail-order business in Chicago, Illinois, after several years of working as a traveling salesman among rural customers. He observed that rural customers often wanted "city" goods but their only access to them was through rural retailers who had little competition and offered no guarantee of quality. Ward also believed that by eliminating intermediaries, he could cut costs and make a wide variety of goods available to rural customers, who could purchase goods by mail and pick them up at the nearest train station.
After several false starts, including the destruction of his first inventory by the Great Chicago Fire, Ward started his business at his first office, either in a single room at 825 North Clark Street, or in a loft above a livery stable on Kinzie Street between Rush and State Streets. He and two partners used $1,600 they had raised in capital and issued their first catalog in August 1872 which consisted of an 8 in × 12 in (20 cm × 30 cm) single-sheet price list, listing 163 items for sale with ordering instructions for which Ward had written the copy. His two partners left the following year, but he continued the struggling business and was joined by his future brother-in-law George Robinson Thorne.
In the first few years, the business was not well received by rural retailers. Considering Ward a threat, they sometimes publicly burned his catalog. Despite the opposition, however, the business grew at a fast pace over the next several decades, fueled by demand primarily from rural customers who were attracted by the wide selection of items unavailable to them locally. Customers were also attracted by the innovative and unprecedented company policy of "satisfaction guaranteed or your money back", which Ward began in 1875. Ward turned the copy writing over to department heads, but he continued poring over every detail in the catalog for accuracy.
In 1883, the company's catalog, which became popularly known as the "Wish Book", had grown to 240 pages and 10,000 items. In 1896, Wards acquired its first serious competition in the mail order business, when Richard Warren Sears introduced his first general catalog. In 1900, Wards had total sales of $8.7 million, compared to $10 million for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and the two companies were to struggle for dominance for much of the 20th century. By 1904, the company had grown such that it mailed three million catalogs, weighing 4 lb (1.8 kg) each, to customers.
In 1908, the company opened a 1.25 million ft² (116,000 m²) building stretching along nearly one-quarter mile of the Chicago River, north of downtown Chicago. The building, known as the Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House, served as the company headquarters until 1974, when the offices moved across the street to a new tower designed byMinoru Yamasaki. The catalog house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978 and a Chicago historic landmark in May 2000. In the decades before 1930, Montgomery Ward built a network of large distributions centers across the country in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Kansas City, St. Paul, Portland, and Oakland. In most cases, these reinforced concrete structures were the largest industrial structures in their respective locations. The Baltimore Montgomery Ward Warehouse and Retail Store was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.