Wells Fargo Logo
Wells Fargo Logo
A man in a suit is shown holding and looking at three avocados that are opened. There are six unopened avocados on a table next to him. To the right is a Wells Fargo & Co Express logo with a cartoon image of an avocado.
The “alligator pear,” known today as the avocado, was one of the many foods that Wells Fargo promoted.
This picture ran in the company’s magazine in 1913 with instructions on how to prepare the new food.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

How Wells Fargo helped revolutionize the way Americans ate

Learn how Wells Fargo’s Food Products Department helped farmers and gave customers a new way to buy the foods they loved.

August 30, 2018
Alyssa Bentz
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

Readers of a New York newspaper in March 1910 were upset, but hardly surprised, to find an article concerning the vast difference in the cost of food between New York and London. Eggs cost them about twice the price, at 25 cents for 6 eggs in New York versus the same cost for 12 eggs in London. Apples cost 10 cents a pound in New York, but only 4 to 6 cents a pound at an English market. More maddening was that even American-raised beef was less expensive to London shoppers!

A black and white photo shows three men and a woman to the right. They stand near boxes of food as the woman seems to be tasting or focusing on something. Two of the men look at her.
A still frame from a silent film produced by Wells Fargo in 1915 about a New York woman who buys California cherries for her family.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Government officials, economists, and even shoppers studied the cost of living issue, and each drew their own conclusions. Perhaps the supply of gold was driving costs up, they theorized, or as more people moved to cities, labor and land got more expensive on existing farms.

A painting shows some houses among a green landscape with a mountain in the background. At the top of the image it says: California Food Products To Your Table.
This brochure offered customers across the country the ability to buy boxes of California grown figs and olives.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Wells Fargo, a national express shipping and financial services company at the time, was conducting research of its own. It found that the cost increases were a reflection of a distribution problem. Many independent farmers had limited experience or interest in marketing and logistics, and instead depended on middlemen and wholesalers. The result was expensive inefficiencies that led to 40 percent of American produce going to waste.

A black and white image shows the side of a train car that says: Shipping a few of our Peaches. Beside two people look at large peaches on a cart.
The peaches on this postcard were created by combining two different pictures, but the altered picture conveys the popular notion that Wells Fargo shipped many surprising foods.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

To provide a solution, Wells Fargo started a Food Products Department in August 1913. Wells Fargo had shipped food for customers since the 1850s, using its network of express offices to coordinate shipping by train, ship, and stagecoach.

A painted image has Wells Fargo Messenger, Food Products Number, August 1913, at the top. Below it is a train with trucks beside it as men hand each other boxes. The train is beside a building and palm tree. Around the border are fruits.
The cover of the August 1913 magazine that introduced the Food Products Department.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

The new Food Products Department differed from past express service by focusing on sales services as well as shipping. Company agents acted as marketers for local producers, advertising their produce and gathering orders from express customers. The result was a better sales price for farmers, reduced farm-to-table prices for city customers, and increased business for Wells Fargo at a time when it faced new competition after the U.S. Postal Service introduced parcel post service.

An aged typed paper has: Office of Wells, Fargo & Co's Express at the top. It announces vegetable season with rhubarb and green peas. It's signed A. E. Fischer, Agent.
Wells Fargo Agent A. E. Fischer in Hayward, California, helped advertise local green peas and rhubarb to other markets in 1900.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

The story of an apple producer in New York demonstrates the usefulness of Wells Fargo’s new service. When asked by a Wells Fargo manager how he planned on getting his crop to market at the end of the season, the apple producer responded, “About the worst way possible … I am going to haul a hundred barrels of greenings (apples) into town in a few days and sell them at 25 cents a bushel to keep them from rotting on my hands.” He was convinced to try Wells Fargo’s Food Products Department instead. His apples were listed in a company bulletin to agents in other cities who found interested customers. They helped him sell his whole crop. At the end of the season, he made $1 a bushel, about 75 percent more than he made before. Despite a 35 cents shipping charge, his customers actually paid almost $2 less per bushel than the local market price.

An ad from Hotel Coffee Supply Co. to Wells Fargo expresses appreciation for Wells Fargo' giving the company direct marketing, which resulted in increased orders and satisfied patrons. It says the company is able to now reduce the price of coffee.
Hotel Coffee Supply Co. sold coffee through Wells Fargo in 1914.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

‘A revolution in how Americans ate’

An image at the top says: California Orange Day, March 18th, Send your oranges east by Wells Fargo. Below that is a white building, the Wells Fargo & Co. Express logo, and a woman holding a large plate of oranges.
This banner was hung on the side of a Wells Fargo wagon and used to market California oranges to other cities in the 1910s.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Wells Fargo’s Food Products Department did more than save consumers money and earn greater profits for farmers. It was part of a revolution in how Americans ate. Nationwide expansion of railroads and refrigerated railcars created regional hubs in food production. Midwestern farms became the dairy capital of the U.S, and the Southwest began to specialize in growing fruits and vegetables.

A black and white photos shows buildings that say: Wells Fargo & Co Express, Express Refrigerator on them. Beside them are wagons with horses and people either in the wagon or standing nearby. At the top it says: Winter Crops From Sunny Texas.
Wells Fargo used this picture of lettuce shipped from Texas in 1913 to encourage people in cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore to place orders with local farmers.
Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

For the first time in history, people in Minnesota could eat fresh lettuce in winter, and people in Arizona could buy butter produced by cows thousands of miles away. Company records reflect the popularity of the business and its impact on getting foods to new places: 80,000 gift boxes of California produce for holiday shoppers on the East Coast; 32,000 pounds of butter shipped from Lima, Ohio, to New York City; 3,500 train cars filed with West Virginia peaches; and 6,000 boxes of cantaloupes moved from Illinois farms in a single day. The list goes on, but the numbers obscure the personal experiences of individuals who gained a new way to buy the foods they loved.

An image shows a large group of pecans behind a wood panel. There is a stamp above it with Lincoln, NE, and one to the right reading: Wells Fargo & Co Express. To the right of the pecans, a stamp says 800 lbs.
An image shows a group of large raisins in front of a wood panel background. Above it is a stamp with Fresno, CA, and to the right a stamp says 65,000 PKG. There is a Wells Fargo & Co Express at the top right.
Three large peaches are shown in front of a wooded panel background. At the top, a stamp says New York, and one to the right says 725,000 BSH. There is a Wells Fargo & Co Express logo at the top right.
A large group of strawberries are shown in front of a wooded panel background. Above them is a stamp that says Pasadena, TX, and to the right a stamp says 56,665 CRT. A Wells Fargo & Co Express logo is at the top right.
Wells Fargo records show a shipment of 800 pounds of pecans from Oklahoma to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Wells Fargo shipped 65,000 packages of raisins from Fresno, California, in October 1914-March 1915.
In the early 20th century, Wells Fargo shipped 725,000 bushels of peaches from growers in Port Clinton, Ohio, to buyers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York.
In 1910, strawberry growers in Pasadena, Texas, produced about 8,335 crates shipped by Wells Fargo. The local agent worked to find buyers in other cities, and by 1915 the crop had increased to 56,665 crates worth about $100,000.

One woman living in New Jersey in 1915 began to grow homesick for salmon from the Pacific coast. She talked to her local Wells Fargo agent who helped connect her with the right people. Within a week, she had her fresh salmon and wrote a thank you note declaring, “I could scarcely believe it could come so quickly.” She got a taste of home, and a new business sending salmon directly to consumers helped fill demand for the regional delicacy for another 3,000 customers.

A black and white image shows the side of a train car that says: Shipping a few of our Peaches. Beside two people look at large peaches on a cart.
Wells Fargo popularized the pineapple with its customers to try and boost demand for the newly introduced fruit.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
Contributors: Keith Williams
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