ST PAUL, Minn. — Before Amazon, eBay and Etsy, there was a typewriter belonging to Verna Gregg.
“She grew up in St. Paul, went to Johnson High School, graduated 1932,” Verna’s grandson Evan Gregg explains.
With her schooling complete, Verna hopped off a University Avenue streetcar and started work at Montgomery Ward.
Built in St. Paul’s Midway in 1921, the nine-story Ward building, with its 257-foot tower, housed the company’s mail order operations for much of the western United States.
Verna landed in the complaint department, where she found herself frequently amused by the letters she received.
What is the matter with Mont. Ward anyway? I ordered a 32 V. electric churn and what do I get – a lawn mower. Now what can a fellow with a lot of cream do with a lawn mower?
Over the course of a decade, Verna responded to thousands of letters. Some tickled her so much, she took them home.
“Absconded with them, you could say,” Evan says with a smile.
Eventually, Verna typed up the handwritten letters and slipped them into a black binder her husband had inscribed with her name.
“My grandfather would pull them out at parties and brought them to the Masons’ meetings and would read them there to entertain the other members,” Evan says.
I ordered two rose-tinted ice buckets and I did not get the green one. Only the one came and there wasn't any ice in it so I am sending it back.
A family member discovered the letters, which eventually wound up in Evan's hands. As he read, Evan became more and more fascinated with the letters his grandmother had saved.
“There were ones that were amusing, but they also had a sociological value,” Evan says.
Looking thru our catalog I came across literature on sex and birth control. I do not know what your books on sex are like but I hope they have the same viewpoint that our creator taught us to have, that is purity and not animal hygiene.
From the start in 1872, Aaron Montgomery Ward targeted his catalog at farmers and other rural residents lacking access to big city stores.
"There's definitely a lot of recent immigrants,” Evan says. “They didn't speak English fluently yet.”
Last Wick I ordert Some Goods From You and I Resived it on the 27 the Shoes and Foset are Good but The Ratio don’t Give Setesfaction. I Tret it on deferant Ariels But I Can’t Make it Work to Sute Me.
As he read, Evan began to understand the relationship between rural customers and their Ward catalog was deeper than mere commerce.
“It was a lifeline, and it was their main point of contact with the outside world,” Evan says, “especially in the depression when so many things are shutting down.”
Dear Mr Mont
Please cancel my order for toilet paper. Time won't permit me to wait for it.
Toilet paper, and the Ward catalog’s suitability as a stand-in, is a reoccurring theme in the letters.
“That was another thing that clicked during the pandemic,” Evan says smiling. “I read those right when the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 was happening.”
But for every laugh, Verna Gregg’s grandson also found himself caught up in the poignancy of certain letters.
With this letter I am returning a diamond ring I purchased from your mail order store the 17th of march. The diamond is satisfactory in every way, but the girl Is’nt…
I wish to exchange my ring for a radio, The price is nearly the same and we can keep on going with the payments just as usual…
I wish and hope you can make this deal and that I can have a radio to fill the long winter hours.
“There's a couple in there that really are a little heartbreaking and really show the isolation some of these people were in,” Evan says.
Mother and I have decided that the man in the overcoat on page 257 (the brown coat at the top of the page) would make me a good husband. I know he would be good to me.
How can I get him? If you can send him to me, I will be glad to pay the postage.
Evan says the more he thought about it, the more he realized the letters “should be shared with other people.”
So, with funding from a Kickstarter campaign, Evan published the letters in a book he titled “Dear Mr. Ward.”
In 1996, demolition explosives brought down the St. Paul offices and tower of Montgomery Ward.
Five years later, the entire company was bankrupt.
But Verna's letters are reminders of a time when a mail order catalog opened the world to a North Dakota bride-to-be who mailed a shopping list to set up housekeeping – then added:
I don't know much about housekeeping, so if there is anything else you think I mite need please send that too.
“It was really great to have this way to connect to my grandma. She died when I was young,” Evan says. “I think about it all the time; I wish I'd been able to read them with her.”
In a way, Evan has done exactly that by helping Verna type up one final delivery, while making a place and time a seem a little less forgotten.
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