About The Letters
Before there was Yelp, Facebook or Twitter there were formal complaints departments. Teams of people would process letters and telegrams from customers with gripes of all sizes and levels of weirdness. This was especially true for the pioneering mail order company Montgomery Ward, known for its policy of “Satisfaction Guaranteed or Your Money Back.”
These letters were saved by my grandma, Verna Gregg when she worked in the complaints department of the Montgomery Ward office in St Paul, Minnesota between 1932-1942.
My grandma saved some of the info of who sent the letters and from where. The towns they were sent from include:
- Alfred, ND
- Bluegrass, ND
- Goodrich, ND
- Coleraine, MN
- Starbuck, MN
- Lincoln, CA
- Deer River, WI
- Fall Creek, WI
- Granite Falls, WI
- Randall, WI
- Rice Lake, WI
- Woodstock, WI
- Great Falls, MT
- Missoula, MT
- Minto, SD
- Mound City, SD
- Watertown, SD
- Wessington, SD
The letters provide a unique window into the lives of rural Americans from the peak of the depression to the beginning of World War II. Only a few of the letters still have names attached. I hope to eventually connect with some living descendants of the people who sent the letters. If you see a familiar name I’d love to hear from you.
About The Book
I rediscovered the letters as I was going through the boxes of family heirlooms my parents left behind. This was at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown and I related to the isolation apparent in so many of the letters. After sharing a few letters with friends I decided they needed to be published. It was awhile before I had a chance to do so. I raised over $5,000 through a kickstarter campaign which paid for the first batch of books. That first run sold out shortly after this segment aired on KARE11 The NBC affiliate in St Paul, MN. There was so much interest I had enough orders to pay for another printing. I hope to keep printing more copies as long as there is interest. I am also working on a plan to do staged readings of some of the letters where I live in Western Mass and possibly throughout the Midwest.
About Montgomery Ward
Montgomery Ward was started in 1872 by Aaron Montgomery Ward specifically to service homesteaders in the west. He had worked as a traveling salesman and observed that rural people were unable to get the “city goods” they desired from their local stores.
They sold everything you can think of including clothes, cars, appliances, seeds, radios, farming equipment, and even houses. There were a few things that they didn’t sell…but it didn’t stop some people from asking. The catalog itself also served other uses as you can see in several letters.
In addition to offering a wider selection at lower prices they had the first “money back guarantee” in a general mail order catalog. Many of the letters are from customers pushing that guarantee to the limits.
For many people it was one of their only connections to the rest of the country. Some of the letters are very personal and come from a place of isolation.
My Grandma's Time at Montgomery Ward
My grandma started working at Montgomery Ward after graduating from high school in 1932. She stayed there until my dad was born in 1941. She then returned briefly in 1942 after my grandpa left for World War II.
She worked as a correspondent. In that role she was responsible for composing responses to letters sent in by customers from all over the rural Midwest.
She was specifically in charge of complaint letters but she also translated letters from Swedish, Norwegian and German. She spoke her original responses to the letters into an Edison dictaphone that recorded on wax cylinders. The cylinders were then sent to a team of typists who would type the letter and send it in to her supervisor for approval.
This is probably similar to the model of Ediphone that she used when transcribing.
The video is an advertisement for a much earlier model. It shows the recording and dictation as well as the scraping of the used wax off the cylinder afterwards.
She saved many of the letters she found most interesting and amusing. She kept them loose in a box for years until one day my grandpa bought her a binder with her name engraved on it. She then typed up the letters and put copies in the binder. They would stay there until my uncle discovered them while cleaning out the family home after my grandpa died. Unfortunately only a few of the originals remain and none of my grandma’s responses have survived.
Montgomery Ward Timeline
The site is not meant to be an exhaustive history of Montgomery Ward but here are some highlights. There is a more substantial history in the book and you can also find more info about the company in the additional reading list.
1872: Founded by Aaron Montgomery Ward in Chicago. First catalog sent in August.
1875: “Satisfaction Guaranteed or your money back” begins.
1896: Richard Warren Sears launches his own catalog.
1908: The Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalog House in Chicago opens
1920-21: The Northwestern offices are built in St Paul.
1926: The first Retail storefront opens
1936 or 37: My grandma starts working for Montgomery Ward
1939: Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer is created by a staff copywriter
1944: The US government seizes the Chicago office and later all Montgomery Ward property after CEO Sewell Avery feuds with FDR
1985: The catalog ceases publication
2001: The last Montgomery Ward Office closes after 129 years
2004: The Montgomery Ward and Wards brand are purchased by DMSI
2009: DMSI is bought by Swiss Colony which rebrands as Colony Brands
These are a few of the links I consulted for this site. I was pretty familiar with Montgomery Ward from my dad telling me about it growing up. Mostly I used these links to get specific dates and some additional details.
Mostly I consulted the wikipedia article for Montgomery Ward. It’s well researched and cited, so definitely go there if you want to dig deeper.
This .pdf from the Library of Congress (where my dad worked briefly) has very detailed info on the St Paul office including architectural details.
The Library of Congress also has this photo gallery of the St Paul Offices
For the history in the book I made extensive use of the book “The First Hundred Years Are The Toughest,” by Cecil C. Hoge. It is the most extensive history of both Montgomery Ward and their main competitor Sears Roebuck that I have found. It is out of print but you might be able to find a copy online.
My name is Evan Gregg. I was born and raised in Western Massachusetts by Midwestern parents. We never ordered from the Montgomery Ward catalog but I have fond memories of picking out toys in the Sears and JCPenney Christmas catalogs.
I’ve worked a wide variety of jobs that involved customer service or people complaining to me. This include 3 landfills, assorted general stores, a video and record store, and in the locations department of movies. I never received or sent formal letters of course but like my grandma I always tried to find the humor in the gripes.
In addition to this site I run one called Western Mass Junction where I list local events (until the pandemic of course) and promote my region through digital content.