‘Dear Sirs, May I make a complaint?’ Letters from another century are humorous and also candid – New Hampshire Public Radio
A 1930s musical soundtrack fades down and a group of actors begin taking turns behind a microphone at the Shea Theater in Turners, Falls, Massachusetts, reading complaint letters from almost a hundred years ago.
They were written by customers of Montgomery Ward, a full-service mail-order catalog — the Amazon of its time — and brought to life by Evan Gregg, whose family, he said, never throws anything out.
“Dear Mister Ward” — the title of the performance as well as the book of collected missives it’s based on — tells the stories of people who lived in a time between two world wars, in mostly rural parts of the country.
They used the Montgomery Ward catalog to buy what they likely couldn’t find locally, Gregg said, like sturdy boots, tractors, fashionable clothes, toys and car parts.
One of the more humorous complaint letters to the Montgomery Ward catalog, brought to life in a book and staging by Evan Gregg. His grandmother, Verna Gregg, worked for Montgomery Ward for 10 years starting in 1932. She saved and retyped dozens of complaints.
Montgomery Ward had a well-known money-back guarantee, and — of course — sometimes things didn’t arrive as expected.
Such was the case for M.P. McIntyre, who wrote to Montgomery Ward from Great Falls, Montana.
“Dear sir, I have tried every way I know how to make the horse collar you sent me work on my Model T Ford, but it don’t [sic] seem to fit quite right,” McIntyre wrote. “Am returning at your expense. And will you kindly send me the carburetor at the same time and price, which is, after all, what I ordered in the first place.”
Another letter from Mrs. Eric Akron, address not included, was about the cow she and her husband owned.
“Dear Company, I imagine this letter will make whoever reads it laugh as the very idea of such a thing made me laugh too,” she wrote. “Mr. Akron has been trying to convince me and the neighbors that a few years ago you used to carry a cow tail in stock for just such cows which he says was made with some kind of a clamp to clamp on to the stub of the cow.”
Evan Gregg, who lives in western Massachusetts, found a stash of old complaint letters to Montgomery Ward, saved by his grandmother who worked at the catalog in the 1930s. Gregg brought them to life in a book and a staging called “Dear Mister Ward.”
The letters were collected by Gregg’s grandmother, Verna Gregg, who worked in the complaint department at Montgomery Ward for 10 years, starting in 1932.
She saved dozens of them, Gregg said. People wrote to say they received the wrong item, or something didn’t fit. One letter complained something was broken, even years after it was purchased.
When the younger Gregg found them stashed away among his parents’ belongings, he said the tone of the letters struck him.
“They are complaining about certain things, but they’re doing so in a very familiar, kind of playful way,” Gregg said. “There’s no attacking. There’s no accusations, really.”
Starting in 1932, Verna Gregg worked in the complaint department of Montgomery Ward’s catalog division. She saved dozens of letters from customers in the rural Midwest. Her family kept them and her grandson Evan Gregg has turned the collection into a book and a staged reading called “Dear Mister Ward.”