Just 40 years ago, Montgomery Ward, Sears and J.C. Penney were all things to all people. Their stores were hives of activity and were monumentally profitable. It was unthinkable, then, to consider that any of these three powerhouses could ever go under, but this is just what happened to one of them at the turn of the last century.
Our BIG THREE merchandisers had grown to prominence in an era dominated by several regional department store chains; many of these dating back to the later years of the 19th century. Although each regional department store chain was indigenous to a particular city, most were eventually operated (more or less behind the scenes) as parts of large, national holding companies.
For example, a store such Cincinnati's Shillito's, while serving the Queen City (and eventually a few Kentucky locations), was but a cog in a gigantic, coast-to-coast department store grid. In this case, the holding company was operated by Cincinnati-based Federated Stores.
Regional department stores of the time were often upscale, "carriage trade" concerns. They sold general merchandise, as well as luxury items that were geared toward the more discriminating shopper. These stores became known for their superlative customer service. They were often beloved by customers and considered to be a pillar of the community.
At the forefront of so-called "mid-tier" merchandising were three department store chains which catered more to the needs of the general public. Montgomery Ward & Company and Sears, Roebuck & Company started out as catalog-based retailers and eventually expanded into national "brick & mortar" store chains. The J.C. Penney Company had humble beginnings operating stores in the Rocky Mountains of the western United States and expanded nationwide in the 1920s.