Aaron Montgomery Ward, a traveling dry goods salesman, founded a mail-order retail firm in 1872 in Chicago, Illinois. He and two partners issued their first catalog that year featuring 163 items.
By 1883, the Montgomery Ward catalog was 240 pages with 10,000 items.
When Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck opened their mail order store in 1896, it kicked off a nationalwide competition that raged for decades.
Both retailers sought to serve rural Americans with access to merchandise their local stores didn’t carry.
For the next 30 years, Sears and Wards competed to be the nation’s biggest retailer.
Aaron Ward died in 1913. Richard Sears died in 1914.
Sears, Roebuck and Company opened its first retail store in 1925 in a Chicago suburb, and Montgomery Ward followed with its first retail store in Plymouth, Indiana, in 1926.
In 1927, the Ward company leased the old Reliance Hotel building at Lincoln Street and Second Avenue in Spokane for a new retail store, announced by W.Q. Bateman, manager of Ward’s Portland branch. The building was altered to put the entrance in the middle of the Second Avenue facade and added display windows on the Lincoln Street side. The store began filling mail orders in August of that year and opened the retail store in September. A year later, Wards had 244 stores nationwide. By 1929, there were 531 stores.
The company also began construction on a grand new seven-story store at the corner of Post Street and Trent Avenue in Spokane. The new store opened in November of 1929, just in time for Christmas shopping. The 1929 art deco structure served the company until 1978, when the store moved to North Division in Franklin Park Plaza, following a trend toward suburban shopping. The former store is now Spokane City Hall.
Similarly, Sears had built a large downtown store at Main Avenue and Lincoln Street in 1930, kicking off years of head-to-head competition for shoppers in downtown Spokane. Sears closed and moved to Northtown in 1960. The downtown store then became the Spokane Public Library,
The 1930s were very tough for both retailers, and there were staffing cutbacks and store closings. But both stores turned the corner in the 1940s and began to make a profit again, Sears was aggressive in buidling new stores after the Great Depression, while Ward's was more conservative. Sears would reign as the nation's largest retailer for much of the 20th century.
After Montgomery Ward moved out in 1929, the Reliance building had been converted back into a hotel with retail on the main floor. In 1963, the building was torn down to allow expansion for the Dodge City auto dealership, which would take the entire north side of the block of Second Avenue from Lincoln to Monroe.
Photo caption: The Reliance Building, on the northwest corner of Second Avenue and Lincoln Street in downtown Spokane, was built around 1905. It was a typical brick structure with hotel rooms above and retail space at ground level. From 1927-1929, it served as the first Montgomery Ward store in Spokane, which included the building to the north, which is now called the Freeman Center. It was torn down in 1963.