When I read the letters that make up Dear Mister Ward during lockdown I felt a certain kinship to the folks who wrote them. In most ways their lives and mine could not have been more different. The letters, however came from a state of isolation not so far removed from what we were all experiencing during lockdown.
In most instances their isolation was more intense. After all I could text my friends, order Indian food to be delivered and use curbside pickup to get a new coffee pot when I broke mine. The Montgomery Ward catalog provided not just a way to get items they couldn’t find elsewhere but a connection to someone outside their local communities. In some ways they were more resilient as well. They wouldn’t have panicked over a toilet paper shortage as long as they had cobs and catalogs.
While the letters give a quick glimpse into the writers’ lives I found myself wanting to know more about them. Did Frank ever find a wife? Was the silver fox farmer everything Helen had hoped for? I have a feeling my grandma wondered the same thing. Unlike her I have access to the internet so maybe I can answer some of those questions.
The people who sent the letters also knew nothing about who was responding to them. In addition to the letter addressed to “Mr Ward” others were addressed to “Dear Company,” “Dere Monkees,” and more. Many of them were written informally, almost as if to a friend or confidant. However, they had no idea that on the other end of the correspondence was a young woman in her 20s born to Swedish immigrants.
Based on the only letter for which a formal response has been preserved I believe the letters were signed by her department head not by her personally. After dictating her response to the letters they would be sent to typists who transcribed them. The letter I have ends like this:
This could have been because receiving a letter from a woman in the mail would have been considered scandalous at the time. Even having women in a position of authority to respond to the letters was unusual.
There are certain things we can presume about the folks who wrote the letters. For instance due to their surnames and at times phonetic spelling it would seem that English, for some, was not their primary language. It’s entirely possible that not all of the letters in the book were originally written in English. Montgomery Ward had a policy that you could write in any language and if they didn’t have someone in the office who could answer it they would find someone. My grandma responded to letters in Swedish, Norwegian, German and French.
Unfortunately it’s too late to connect my grandma with any of the people who wrote the letters. Even if some of them are alive they would be close to or more than 100, and she passed long ago. But I know if someone had a letter that my grandma wrote, especially one as hilarious as those she saved I would want to read it. So, I am trying to connect to living relatives of the original writers. I’m using a variety of tools such as Ancestry, Family Search as well as contacting local historical and genealogical societies. However, even if I managed to identify living relatives, getting in touch with them is another matter. That’s why I started this blog, just in case anyone recognized a name and could help make contact.
If any of the names from the letters ring a bell please don’t hesitate to reach out via the contact form on this site or via the Dear Mister Ward Facebook Page.