Wagons, Sleighs, And Silver Bells

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THE SEVENTIES and eighties of the last century, more than any other period in American history, have the strongest nostalgic pull for the people of America. Those were our days of serenity when, at peace with the world and ourselves, we built confidently for the future and enjoyed the simple pleasures of the present - or so it seems as we look backward. Certain inanimate objects symbolize that tranquil mood - the traditional one-room schoolhouse, whether red or. white or made of logs; a railway train, with its engine trailing a plume of white smoke along the roofs of ornate Pullman Palace cars.

Ranking with these in happy memory are the express wagons, green of the Adams, red of Wells Fargo, dark blue and red of American. In winter they were replaced by big sleighs as brightly painted and drawn by powerful teams of matched horses, on the collars of which silver bells chimed exquisitely through the frosty air.

The arrival of the express wagon meant excitement and fun - a present, or the trunks of a visitor, or one's own belongings starting on a journey to the seashore. So agreeable were the reactions produced by them that every child had to have a small express wagon of his own - now children have jet fighters and tanks - with which to play at being the expressman.

The expressman was a very special person. Typically he would be a native American or an Irish immigrant, big and enormously strong, smelling of sweat with a flavour of horse, hard-working, hard-living, gay, and wonderfully kind to the children who waited his coming so eagerly.

Such men as these were the backbone of the American Express Company. They formed a freemasonry of their own, a non-exclusive club to which any man might belong who had a strong back, willing hands, and the stamina to work fourteen hours a day. Many of them rose to be officers of the company, and one became president of it. An official of American Express, who had started on the wagons, said, "Sure, we often worked for fourteen hours or more, but we didn't mind. It was really fun when we all drove the wagons in under the old buildings at 65 Broadway and got together. There was such a friendly feeling, it made you warm with - comradeship."

The American Express Company - it got its right name back in 1873, by dropping the Merchants Union"- moved into the building on the site of its present headquarters at 65 Broadway in 1874. Before that, in addition to the Hudson Street building, its offices had been at six different addresses in the financial district.

Sixty-five Broadway, where the company's great modern headquarters building stands today, was originally a sugar warehouse. When American Express leased it from Philip Harmon & Nephews, the architects ripped out its interior and rebuilt it to the necessities of the company. But they could not do away with a sustaining wall that ran up the middle of the ground floor.

So, as finally completed and used for forty years, the main business space was divided by that adamantine wall and connected by two archways cut through it. On one side was the financier room with cages for the clerks wired all around and over the top; on the other side express packages were received. At Christmas time people came to wrap their gifts at long tables placed along the walls and supplied with paper, cord, and American Express Company labels. When J. C. Fargo was president he would come down and stand watching to make sure that the ladies got their packages properly wrapped and labelled.

The horse-drawn express wagons drove in underneath, making the whole building smell like a livery stable. The spittoons, ranged along the walls and near the fluted columns that supported the ceilings of the two long rooms, were in constant use.

In later years the company installed a battery of ten vaults in the cellar in which to store the immensely valuable express matter and records overnight. As a special precaution the vaults had two sets of dials. The vault man held one set of combinations and an officer of the company the other, so the doors could be opened only by both men together.

The vault man, a simple though faithful fellow, had his combinations written down on the back wall of the cellar. One morning at opening time he gave a wail of despair: "The combinations are gone!"

In the night some workmen had whitewashed the wall, obliterating the rows of numbers. As a result the whole financial business of American Express came to a jarring stop until an expert safe man arrived to open the vaults.

American Business Women in 2015

What next? A Duel to the Death

A Duel to the Death

The second challenge was almost a duel to the death. In 1867 a large group of New York merchants were sold on the idea that express rates were too high and they should set up their own express company to combat this situation. The selling job was so successful that the Merchants Union Express Company was formed with a capital of £20,000,000. As soon as the ink was dry on its charter the Merchants Union went out to get American Express.

The battle lasted more than a year and was conducted with intense bitterness and every weapon at the disposal of the rival companies. They cut rates right and left, enticed away each other's key men, and resorted to all sorts of curious devices to get tonnage. American Express had one hand tied behind it because of an agreement with the railroads that it would not accept goods rated as freight, while the railroads in turn agreed not to solicit express business. The Merchants Union, with no such contract, took... see: A Duel to the Death

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