Collections and Resources, Events, North Carolina History, Southern Historical Collection, Special Collections, University Archives

Montgomery Ward Challenge Met

A 100-year-old challenge drew to a close Sept. 15 at UNC’s Wilson Special Collections Library. Academics, archivists, and business leaders came together to fulfill Kemp P. Battle’s “Montgomery Ward Challenge” with an evening of lecture and reflection.


John Baumann (center), President and CEO of Colony Brands, reviews materials related to UNC’s Montgomery Ward Challenge. With him are (l to r): Jennifer Bradley and Stephanie Derendinger of Colony Brands; Prof. Fitz Brundage, UNC; and Bryan Giemza, director of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Library. Photograph by Jay Mangum.

In 1915, Battle, a former UNC President, sealed a Montgomery Ward catalog in a tin box and mailed it with a letter to the North Carolina Historical Society.


“Congratulations to the University of North Carolina on the culmination of the 100 year challenge issued by former University President Kemp Plummer Battle! With sincere appreciation, Your Friends at Montgomery Ward. 9-15-15.” Photograph by Aleah Howell.

The letter asked Tar Heels 50 and 100 years later to write an essay reflecting on changes in society, based on the 1915 catalog. In 1965, the essayist was Chancellor Robert B. House (for whom the Undergraduate Library is named), writing on “Great and Important Changes.”

This year, under the leadership of UNC history department chair Fitz Brundage, two evenings of lectures captured just how much has changed since the era of the buggy, the corset, and the walking plow.

In April, UNC professors John Kasson and Dana McMahan delivered the first talks. This time, historian Peter Coclanis of UNC and Lee Craig, of North Carolina State University, described the trajectory of Montgomery Ward since it established itself as a mail-order innovator in the 19th century.

Although Montgomery Ward declared bankruptcy at the turn of the 21st century, its story did not end there. John Baumann, President and CEO of Colony Brands, which today owns and operates Montgomery Ward catalog and online retailer, spoke about the company today and its determination “to be the last significant catalog and etailer standing.”

“The Montgomery Ward catalog is a provocative document that will cause people to think creatively for many years to come,” said Brundage, saluting Kemp Battle’s foresight.

A commemorative statuette from the Library’s “Friends at Montgomery Ward” will now join other materials related to the challenge in Wilson Library.


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