Marianne Babal is a Corporate Historian for Wells Fargo.
Today, the sight of delivery vans and trucks circling neighborhoods and dropping millions of boxes on consumers’ doorsteps has become another tradition of the holiday season. A century ago, Wells Fargo wagons delivered gift packages in thousands of cities and towns, surprising and delighting adults and children of all ages. The company spread so much holiday cheer that it proudly advertised its express delivery service as a “modern Santa Claus.”
The men and women of Wells Fargo were reminded to “treat every parcel as if it were intended for you or yours.” The company magazine Wells Fargo Messenger described how every employee could contribute to the spirit of the holiday season in December 1917:
“Think of the disappointment when the treasured packages fail to arrive on time! Recall your own chagrin when the Christmas present you bought at the store arrived in broken condition! So it is safe to say that every Fargo man can make a direct contribution to the happiness of the Yuletide Season. Whether he is the driver who receipts for a package, the man in the depot who waybills and weighs it, the messenger in the car who records, or the agent at destination — he is an important link in the human chain that safeguards the transportation of every shipment by express.”
In New York City, headquarters of the company’s express operations, Wells Fargo delivered some 30,000 packages daily during the holiday season. A local newspaper described the avalanche of holiday goods:
“At the long pier in Jersey City, the eastern terminus of Wells Fargo and Company, trains from all parts of the country are arriving, laden with Christmas presents for New Yorkers, and with the aid of this modern Santa Claus the vast tide of incoming Christmas traffic is speedily unloaded and distributed by hundreds of express wagons up and down the city streets.”
To meet demand, the company had to ramp up its workforce, unloading train cars and sorting and loading parcels on hundreds of wagons. An army of wagon drivers and wagon helpers assured each special package found its way to the intended recipient. In New York, the company increased its workforce by 50% for the holiday season and deployed dozens of extra wagons to meet the rush.
New customer service efforts
This all-out focus on customer service was no accident. In 1912, the U.S. Postal Service expanded its parcel post service to handle larger packages, accepting items greater than four pounds in weight for the first time. With this increased competition, Wells Fargo and other companies in the express business had to earn customers’ loyalty through superior service. Wells Fargo adapted and found new ways to please customers. It established branch offices inside department stores, offering shoppers a one-stop experience of choosing their gifts and sending them by express to loved ones immediately. In Portland, Oregon, Wells Fargo employees set up a service counter in the basement of Meier and Frank and seven other downtown stores. In Los Angeles, Wells Fargo could be found in Aisle 8 of the Ville de Paris department store.
Extended hours made doing business with Wells Fargo even more convenient in the hectic holiday season. In Phoenix, Wells Fargo kept its office open until 7 p.m. daily and its depot office all night. In San Francisco, seven neighborhood branch offices opened early and stayed open late from Dec. 18 to 25. In Long Beach, California, open hours extended from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day except Sunday. In Austin, Texas, agent Ira P. Lockridge figured his seven wagons delivered several thousand gifts every day and announced that the Austin office would open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 25. Even the smaller town of Marion, Ohio, added an extra wagon for duty, making three total in town.
In snowbound Bisbee, Arizona, Wells Fargo resorted to using a sled to deliver the goods, despite the weather. A local newspaper reported: “The real Santa Claus in Bisbee — where there is no competition from the postman — is the Wells Fargo man and its Bisbee Santas are the busiest individuals in town these days.”
Wells Fargo delivered perishable gifts and holiday treats, too. The Fresno, California, agency in 1913 estimated it shipped out 500 more boxes of dried fruit — raisins, figs, oranges, and olives — than the local crew had handled the previous season. The Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, sent 20,000 fruitcakes to customers all across the country in just one shipment in 1914.
Spreading all this holiday cheer took a lot of work. When the big day finally arrived, Wells Fargo men and women sat down to a well-deserved family dinner, feasting on turkey and all the trimmings given to each by the company in thanks for helping make so many wishes come true.
Wells Fargo Christmas labels
Not even Santa could deliver every package on the eve of Dec. 24, so Wells Fargo agents and wagon drivers supplied package labels and stickers urging recipients to wait to open their holiday surprises.