Turning out the lights at Montgomery Ward

January 16, 2001|By Gus Crenson

ALAS, POOR Monkey Ward. I knew it well.

In the fall of 1941, long before that old mail-order giant declared bankruptcy, I went to work at the company's big white building on Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street, in Baltimore. My job: answering letters about merchandise in the farm section of Ward's fat catalog.

It didn't seem to trouble the man who hired me that my background didn't quite fit the job. I had lived all my life in New York City and knew nothing about farming. In truth, I did mislead him a little. He asked me whether I handled correspondence at my New York job. I assured him I did. I didn't think he needed to know that I was a mail boy. Correspondence was about all the mail there was.

But soon I was as savvy as the next guy on the relative merits of Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds. And I was a walking encyclopedia of wisdom on manure spreaders, chicken brooders and farm wagons, as well as those baby chicks. I was answering 40 or 50 letters a day. Pay was $26 a week, $8 more than I had made in New York.

I remember some of those letters.

A woman wrote that six of the 100 baby chicks she had ordered were dead when the shipment arrived. We always replace dead chicks. No problem. But she added that she had bought a pair of white shoes to wear on Sundays to church. They were worn out after only three years. It seemed to me that shoes took a beating around a farm, even if they were worn only on Sundays. I replied as kindly as I could that she had gotten her money's worth.

Of course, I wasn't Ward's shoe expert. I found that out a few days later when a memo came from a correspondence reviewer at Ward's Chicago headquarters: I should have replaced the woman's shoes.

One man, to prove the legitimacy of his claim, enclosed with his dead chick letter the severed legs of about 20 chicks. Customers were generally loyal and unsophisticated. Most lived in the rural South. Sears, Roebuck, our principal rival, was stronger in the farm regions of the Midwest. Letters would sometimes begin "Dear Montgomery" and update us on a family drama begun in an earlier letter. To some customers, I'm sure, Ward's was like any other general store, where a lone proprietor picked off the store shelves the products you ordered, wrapped them on the front counter and gave them to the mailman when he came by.

Some did keep abreast of the times. Our farm wagons came equipped with tires. I began taking calls for any and all wagons in stock the day after the wartime rationing of auto tires began.

Retail customers seemed as loyal as the distant farmers. As Christmas 1941 approached, Maryland rural dwellers by the hundreds cascaded into the catalog order department. They would sit - or stand - packed in the steamy room waiting for their orders to come down the chute. I never heard anyone complain.

Five minutes away by car were Hutzler's, O'Neill's, Stewart's, The Hub, Gutman's, the May Co. and Brager's. But for those shoppers there was only one store in Baltimore - Monkey Ward.

The same tunnel vision affected some of the staff. Early in World War II, when rationing rules held our attention, a co-worker seated at the lunch table expressed his wonder that the government hadn't seen the wisdom of turning over responsibility for all retail transactions to - yes - Montgomery Ward. One or two at the table nodded in agreement.

Montgomery Ward was 128 years old and once the nation's greatest retailer.

Gus Crenson, who worked for Montgomery Ward for a year, is a retired state employee living in Towson.

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