Unraveling Workers’ Letters: The Voices behind Nelly Don

The Workers’ Rhetoric: How They Made Their Voices Heard

The workers who wrote letters about their employment at the Donnelly Garment Company (DGC) in 1937 were keenly interested in arguing that the organizational overtures of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) were unwelcome.  In their letters, the workers established their credibility as savvy participants in the labor market. They crafted detailed portraits of the working conditions inside the DGC factory. They praised the leadership and generosity of Nell Donnelly Reed.  And they reinforced the sense of community shared among DGC workers. As adept with words as they were needle and thread, the letter writers at the DGC collectively crafted a persuasive portrait of their working lives.

Opal Stufflebean, Letter

Opal Stufflebean

Opal Stufflebean’s letter compares wages and working conditions at the DGC to other factories in the “Middle West.” She backs up her claims by disclosing her wage and specifying the lack of compulsory overtime. Stufflebean also fosters solidarity by speaking for the collective “we,”  rather than only herself, in the her second and fourth paragraphs.

Katherine Hamel, Letter

Katherine Hamel

Emphasizing her longevity at the DGC, Katherine Hamel proudly announces that her fifteen years of employment have made her eligible for induction into the company’s “Pioneer Club.” Hamel’s letter also highlights her appreciation for the benefits DGC offers to its employees.

Edna Flynn, Letter

Edna Flynn

Edna Flynn’s letter is short yet packed with information, listing benefits like paid holidays and Christmas bonuses. She directly states that the DGC is “grand” because of its cleanliness and comfort. She compares the DGC to other garment factories and includes her fellow workers in a resounding statement of support.

Dora Mattox, Letter

Dora Mattox

Dora Mattox uses her experience at the DGC and other dress shops to establish her credibility in assessing working conditions. And she creates an in-group and an out-group, referring to “congenial and happy” workers versus an “outsider” union. The letter closes with praise for Mrs. Reed who “does everything she possibly can to make things easy and pleasant.”

Nettie Ely, Letter

Nettie Ely

Nettie Ely’s emotional letter includes a story that helps explain her support of the DGC. She reiterates many points made in the other letters about working conditions. The letter concludes by saying that she hopes things “will continue just as they are,” indicating that she sees the ILGWU’s involvement as unnecessary.