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Field is famous, but Ward’s legacy echoes

Donald Trump’s assault against the United States Postal Service brings to mind just how important the mails were to the growth of Chicago — as well as to the new business model of one Aaron Montgomery Ward.

The Spirit of Progress, a statue depicting the goddess Diana, sits atop the tower of the former Montgomery Ward building in the 600 block of West Chicago Avenue. Another version of the statue once sat atop the tower of the company’s building on Michigan Avenue in the Loop.
The Spirit of Progress, a statue depicting the goddess Diana, sits atop the tower of the former Montgomery Ward building in the 600 block of West Chicago Avenue. Another version of the statue once sat atop the tower of the company’s building on Michigan Avenue in the Loop.
Sun-Times file

History is not fair. It does not dole out fame in strict proportion with significance, but instead assigns it haphazardly, based on eye-catching flourishes.

For instance. Most Chicagoans know Marshall Field, the department store founder whose namesake flagship State Street store became a beloved icon. Field didn’t originate the idea of a department store, he perfected it, forging cherished personal memories for many Chicagoans who made pilgrimages in December to ogle fabulous Christmas windows.

But the truly revolutionary Chicago figure, whose legacy outstrips Field’s though his name is far more remote from public memory, is a clerk who worked for Field: Aaron Montgomery Ward. It was Ward who, in mid-August, 1872, printed out a single sheet of 163 items for sale and mailed it to farmers. Ward created the first mail-order catalogue.

We forget how revolutionary Ward’s business really was. People at the time had trouble wrapping their heads around it. The Chicago Tribune denounced Ward, editorially, as an obvious crook. “Beware! Don’t patronize Montgomery Ward & Co. They are deadbeats!” the paper warned Nov. 8, 1873. Beside the impossibly low prices and suspiciously wide range of goods, the company “retired from the public gaze,” with no roving agents or actual place of business. What was that?

Ward was able to thrive because of two networks of relatively recent technology: the national postal system and railroads, both at the time 25 years old. (The first U.S. postage stamp was issued in 1847; the next year, Chicagoans left the city for the first time aboard a train, heading west — the second-hand locomotive, “Pioneer,” was brought here aboard a ship because there were no tracks leading to Chicago.)

Aaron Montgomery Ward’s original business of offering goods by mail-order, without a physical store, aroused the suspicion of the Chicago Tribune.
Aaron Montgomery Ward eventually opened conventional department stores, but his original business of offering goods only by mail-order aroused the suspicion of the Chicago Tribune.
Sun-Times file

Ward’s creation echoes to this day, loudly. The enormous success of Amazon is merely a 21st century reenactment of Wards’ breakthrough. Instead of a physical catalogue, there is a web portal offering an endless array of goods, which arrive through the mail or UPS, or private Amazon delivery. Amazon is the reason President Donald Trump began attacking the United States Postal Service, trying to hurt owner Jeff Bezos, whose Washington Post daily exposes him as the liar, bully, fraud and traitor he unquestionably is (writing me to insist in ALL CAPS that you CAN’T GRASP THIS only indicts yourself and in no way buffs your gleaming brass god. The sky remains blue no matter how loudly you chant “ORANGE ORANGE ORANGE!”).

Trump’s complete failure to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic — directly resulting in the deaths of 160,000 Americans, to date, with 300,000 certain by Christmas — only dampens his realistic hopes of re-election, So Trump installed a toady, Louis DeJoy, atop the Postal Service, with a mandate to tear apart the system — to make it more difficult, not only for Amazon to deliver lipsticks, but also for Americans to vote by mail. This way, the results, should Trump lose, can be delayed and questioned. That this might hamper his own voters, who skew older, and are the exact people who should protect themselves from infection, is the sort of strategic thinking our president is miserable at.

United States Postal Service head Louis DeJoy in 2017. His boss Donald Trump began slashing at the U.S. mail trying to hurt Amazon, but is pushing harder, trying to undermine voting-by-mail.
United States Postal Service head Louis DeJoy in 2017. His boss Donald Trump began slashing at the U.S. mail trying to hurt Amazon, but is pushing harder, trying to undermine voting-by-mail.
AP

“You’ll never know the election result,” said Trump. “It’ll be fixed. It’ll be rigged.” Unlike most of his statements, that is actually true, though not in the way he intended. Projecting his crimes upon others, as always, Trump left out that if the presidential election is rigged, it’ll be rigged by him.

History is not fair. Stalin is remembered — by people doing the fact thing — as not quite the monster Hitler is remembered to be. Why? Because Stalin won, and his crimes were revealed not in a single shock to stunned victors, but dribbled out, a faint historical echo.

If my grandchildren are not to scurry, heads down, to their miserable jobs under the watchful gaze of enormous portraits of Trump, that liberation must happen now. Otherwise, kneecapping the Postal Service will only be the start. History will be next. As all those statues of Columbus remind us, there is no villain too vile to be venerated if doing so suits a band of descendants. Should the American public spit Trump out like the rotten piece of meat he is, the bad taste will linger in our mouths for a long time. The story of America both soars and crawls. Lately we’ve been wriggling in the mud. Standing tall now is not easy, but it is essential.