Unraveling Workers’ Letters: The Voices behind Nelly Don


The Voices behind Nelly Don

Women workers

Among the many garment factories that thrived in Kansas City in the early 1900s, the Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) was unique.  Nell Donnelly Reed founded the DGC in 1916 and focused on creating sensible yet stylish dresses for women of modest means.  By the early 1930s, “Nelly Don” was the most widely sold dress label in the U.S., and the DGC’s Kansas City factory turned out 500 dresses a day.

Along with her keen eye for practical fashion, Nell Donnelly Reed recognized the value of providing her employees—mostly white women—with clean, safe working conditions; above average wages; and employee benefits that included health insurance, pensions, and paid vacations.  When the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) tried to organize the DGC in the 1930s, the majority or workers spurned the international union’s overtures. They authored over 700 letters in the summer and fall of 1937 to document their work lives and respond to the unionization efforts of the ILGWU. 

These letters are archived in the James A. Reed Collection (K0443) at the State Historical Society of Missouri; this exhibit features a selection of the letters so that visitors can hear the voices of the workers behind the Nelly Don label.

Women working in factory

All in a Day's Work

Discover what mattered most to the Donnelly Garment Company letter writers both on the job and beyond the factory floor.

workers in a factory

The Workers' Rhetoric

Pinpoint some of the rhetorical strategies that the Donnelly Garment Company letter writers used to represent themselves.

Women working at sewing machines

Bursting at the Seams

Trace the varied ways that the DGC letter writers characterized the ILGWU and how they argued against joining the international union.


Pins and Needles

Reckon with the white supremacy at the DGC and the rhetorical work of Black women and men whose jobs were limited to janitorial roles.

Letter Showcase

Bernice Anderson, Letter

Bernice Anderson highlights common themes found in many letters written by her coworkers.  In just over 150 words, Anderson highlights her experiences working in the garment industry; describes the DGC factory as clean and well-run; and expresses gratitude to Nell Donnelly Reed.