Glass Eyes And Gangsters

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WHILE THE TRAVEL DEPARTMENT was the object of special attention during the period of transition after the American Express Company relinquished the express business, other services were also expanded. Foreign exchange became for a while a very important activity of the company. Prior to World War I there had been comparatively little interest among American bankers in foreign exchange. Now it suddenly became a principal preoccupation of financial circles, and many banks began to organize foreign departments. However, since American Express had been in the business for many years and therefore had more experience and technical knowledge of the subject than most, it was for a long time a leader in this field.

Another American Express activity which was strongly pushed was the freight-forwarding business. In the rapid development of foreign trade after World War I, commercial letters of credit became an important instrument to facilitate the flow of goods between nations, and American Express began to finance shipments in this manner.

This was profitable for a while, but in 1921 foreign trade suffered a serious post-war slump. Consignees refused to accept shipments, consignors could not afford to take them back, and American Express, standing in the middle, became the owner of some curious cargoes. Among them was a Chinese warehouse full of mah-jongg sets and 50,000 glass eyes that nobody wanted.

Eventually the company disposed of most of these goods, though at a loss. Among the sadder and wiser young executives who had enthusiastically sponsored the promotion, this has always been known as the "Glass Eye Era."

The Foreign Traffic Department, as it was later called, was headed by some very able men. The first was Harry Gee. Then came James Thane and, in 1936, Martin M. Noon, a veteran of the express business. They developed it with the philosophy that no shipment was too small to bother with and none so great or difficult as to daunt them.

Frederick P. Small was elected president of the American Express Company in 1928 on the death of President Taylor. He immediately set to work to wind up the Glass Eye Era. Small favoured expansion of the company's business, but only in those fields where it had the knowledge and experience to operate profitably. His favourite saying was, "We should stick to our knitting."

Under President Small's farsighted management the decade of the twenties was very successful for American Express. The company expanded but did not over expand. Two extremely important internal innovations were made.

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What next? The Knights of St Colombus

The Knights of St Colombus

The first large post-war special movement was the pilgrimage of the Knights of Columbus to Europe in 1920. A high point of the pilgrimage was to be the participation of the Knights and their families in the ceremony of unveiling a statue of Lafayette in the city of Metz, lately restored to France by the valour of American arms; and a peak moment of the ceremony was expected to be the placing of a truly magnificent wreath at the base of the statue as a gesture of friendship from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

On the day of the unveiling, the lovely lady who was to represent the great New England Commonwealth was on hand, but the wreath was not. Nor could any floral arrangement suitable to so important an occasion be found in that provincial city. At ten o'clock that morning a telegraphic wail reached Captain A. E. Williams at 11 Rue Scribe.

Like all good expressmen, Captain Williams was a man of both intellect and action. Springing... see: The Knights of St Colombus

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