In the late 1800s, Wells Fargo was known as much for its express mail services as its banking services, and in 1888, Wells Fargo became the first express company to transport packages “ocean to ocean” by railroad. For the last leg of each trip, known as “the last mile,” excited customers would eagerly await their delivery from the Wells Fargo wagon. With help from Wells Fargo, people could get items from far away they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, like salmon from Seattle and grapefruit from Tampa, Florida.
The Wells Fargo wagon coming into town was such a popular event that the scene is highlighted in the hit musical “The Music Man.” In a scene from the musical, people lined the street to see the Wells Fargo wagon arrive in town to deliver a lucky someone their package. Lyrics from the song the “Wells Fargo Wagon” describe the excitement of receiving an express package.
On the road and in towns, Wells Fargo wagons were easily recognized by the brightly colored banner advertisements that hung on their sides. The banners, lithographed onto canvas or cardboard three feet tall and five feet wide, depicted areas the wagons traveled, from as far east as Washington, D.C., to Puget Sound, Washington, in the west.
Many successful artists got their start designing commercial illustrations for Wells Fargo and other companies before their careers took off, including Edward Hopper. The American realist painter began his career creating commercial art for Wells Fargo. Likewise, Adolph Treidler, an artist known for his illustrations, posters, commercial art, and wartime propaganda, began his career as a commercial illustrator for Wells Fargo.
Content of the banner advertisements varied. Some advertised the company’s reliable service, also known as “The Fargo Way.” A newspaper in Logan, Utah, described the Fargo Way as “… the personal, safe, and quick transportation of express packages …” Other ads described Wells Fargo’s rapid transportation, promising to deliver a package that used to take 32 days to travel across the country in only four days.
While the wagon was the main mode of express delivery for decades, after 1910 Wells Fargo made the switch to specialty trucks, requiring a new way to attach the banners. With a larger amount of space available on a truck, the banners were framed and glued on the side.
Before commercials, radio ads, or even social media campaigns, wagon banners were an important advertising tool for Wells Fargo. Larger, bolder, and more decorative than ads in the local newspaper, the banners of the 1910s became a symbol of the company and the fast, reliable express delivery service it provided.