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An animated, mostly black and white photo with two men and a young boy posing in front of a service truck with a changing Wells Fargo banner in color on the side of the wagon.
When Wells Fargo made the switch from wagons to trucks, advertisement banners still adorned them, but they were larger and framed. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

When banner ads roamed the earth, big names got a start

Wells Fargo wagons once boasted beautiful banner ads created by well-known artists such as Adolph Treidler and Edward Hopper.

July 12, 2019
Zoe Collins Rath

Zoe Collins Rath is an intern for Wells Fargo Corporate Heritage.

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.

A map of the continental United States with black lines representing the company’s transportation routes. Text on image reads: Nation wide. From your business door, Wells Fargo reaches out over 120,000 miles of transportation lines.
Click to enlarge: This banner advertisement from May 1915 explains Wells Fargo’s reach across the entire U.S. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

On an orange background, a brown train is speeding across the country. Text reads: Night and Day The Fargo Way. In a center diamond it says Wells Fargo & Co Express.
Click to enlarge: "The Fargo Way” refers not only to the promised speed of delivery, as this 1915 “Night and Day” banner indicates, but also the secure and careful handling of business with customers. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

The front of a steam engine train in clear view with the shadow of a stagecoach behind it. Reads: Across the Continent the Fargo Way. Once 32 days Now 4 days.
Click to enlarge: This banner, created circa 1914, advertised the speedy deliveries customers could count on. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

A black and white photo of a Wells Fargo wagon with a colored banner of a nighttime picture of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., behind a tree with lamp posts lighting the sky. Reads: Washington a Capital City served by Wells Fargo.
Click to enlarge: This banner by Adolph Treidler announced that Wells Fargo would be working out of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

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.

A black and white photo of a wagon with a Wells Fargo banner on the side in front of a stone wall. Text below photo: Our Traveling Bill-Boards. A fine specimen of Wells Fargo street equipment, arrayed with our new Travelers Check poster.
Click to enlarge: With reigns in hand and traveling billboard posted on the side, a wagon driver is ready to deliver express packages in 1915. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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