Working in an archive is like looking for vintage treasures in an overstuffed warehouse. You might have some idea of what you want to find, but you need to keep an open mind. Since my daughter lives in Chicago, I visit there several times a year. On a recent trip, I decided to take a look at the Montgomery Ward archives held at the Chicago History Museum. They included corporate records, staff magazines, and information about how the catalog was put together. My hope was that I might be able to find something about the famous designer Anne Swainson, who gave the catalog and many of Montgomery Ward’s products their modern look from 1931 to 1955.
Other than the text of the short speech, I found nothing on Swainson. There was very little on how the company designed and sold its clothes, either. (However, there were several pamphlets on how to sell air conditioners and refrigerators.) The staff magazine, Forward, was there in bound versions from the 1920s. It held a lot of information on the lives of young staff members, but older women were scarce on the ground.
My one treasure from an afternoon’s hunt—this 1923 photo of the company’s elite. In the front are the two company matriarchs, Ellen Cobb Thorne and Elizabeth Montgomery Ward, the wives of the founders. In the back row is the second generation. The two older women wear long evening clothes made of luxurious textiles. Mrs. Thorne’s dark dress has an old fashioned cut; it looks to be a silk moiré trimmed with lace at the throat and wrists. Mrs. Montgomery Ward dress is a more up-to-date style made of a rich velvet with ruching at the cuffs and waist. I wonder what the young working girls featured elsewhere in the magazine made of these wealthy matrons.