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A photo of a wooden box with the underside of the lid painted green and many stickers and labels, including ones reading Colton, California, and Tombstone, Arizona. Inset is a black and white portrait of bearded man in suit.
This treasure box, on display at the Wells Fargo Museum in Phoenix, shows wear and tear from many trips to Tombstone, Arizona; a portrait of Joseph Y. Ayer, who made the treasure boxes.
Photo: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives and public domain. Photo of the treasure box by Rob Prideaux.
History
February 21, 2020

Keeping customers’ valuables secure: Wells Fargo’s treasure boxes

Wells Fargo’s iconic treasure boxes were one of the first ways the company kept its customers’ valuables secure.

In Wells Fargo’s first six decades in business, it provided two very important services to customers: banking and express. Express service meant shipping customers’ valuables using the fastest, most reliable means available. From 1852 to 1918, Wells Fargo shipped gold, silver, money, valuable goods, and important documents all over the world on steamships, trains, and stagecoaches. Until 1895, Wells Fargo also carried mail by letter express, and in the 1860s and 1870s often delivered more mail than the U.S. Postal Service in western states and territories.

On stagecoaches and railroad cars, valuable express items sometimes traveled in iron safes, or more frequently, Wells Fargo’s signature wooden treasure boxes, which rode on a stagecoach beneath the driver’s feet. Wells Fargo’s agents on the route could add or remove express items for local business owners and customers. Each outgoing item was secured in the box and the item recorded and tracked on a paper waybill.

The interior of a wood railroad car shows three men standing and one sitting in chair with a small black dog on his lap. In the foreground are various trunks and locked boxes labeled Wells Fargo & Co.
Inside this railroad express car, a Wells Fargo messenger guarded both a wood treasure box and an iron safe.
Photo: Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland, Oregon.

Wells Fargo’s green treasure boxes also held important news delivered by letter and protected customers’ property deeds, payments, and business contracts. Even photos and other family keepsakes and special gifts traveled in safety. Over time, the iconic Wells Fargo treasure box became a symbol of the company’s determination to deliver for customers.

Creating the treasure boxes

Maine-born master carpenter Joseph Y. Ayer began handcrafting Wells Fargo treasure boxes in his San Francisco shop in 1862, choosing heavy pine and oak for the boxes, and adding iron to reinforce the lid, sides, and corners. A heavy iron hasp closure allowed the box to be secured with an iron lock. After adding the signature forest green paint and “Wells Fargo & Co” lettering in white on the front of the box, Ayer added his own maker’s mark inside reading, “J.Y. Ayer 3740 Seventeenth Street, S.F. Cal.”

From his carpenter shop in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, Ayer also produced sturdy, large wooden trunks. These packing trunks held small packages shipped in railroad express cars. Wells Fargo’s messengers rode onboard, watching over the locked trunks and making sure that goods were delivered as promised. The trunks secured and consolidated small package shipments, and if additional goods were loaded, made it easier to move one full trunk than piles of parcels and packages. Packing trunks were 5 feet long and 3 feet high and deep, and built to withstand heavy use on long distance runs.

A rectangular wood box has the lid closed and Wells Fargo lettering on the front.
A rectangular wood box has the lid opened and Wells Fargo lettering on the front.
An oak-rimmed lid and iron straps and corners enhanced durability. Leather handles made it easier to lift the 24-pound box into the front boot of the stage, where treasure rode beneath the driver’s feet.
Photo: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives. Photo by Rob Prideaux.
Ayer used pine and oak for the sturdy treasure boxes, which measured 20 x 12 x 10 inches.
Photo: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives. Photo by Rob Prideaux.

Ayer and his carpenter crews also repaired boxes, trunks, and other company equipment. His son, Joseph S. Ayer, assisted his father in running the family business. The elder Ayer, who also served as the Wells Fargo’s superintendent of office equipment, also outfitted interior furnishings of the company’s new offices throughout the Pacific Coast and Mexico, including new buildings in Sacramento, California, and Los Angeles in the 1890s.

Ayer’s shops narrowly missed being destroyed in the firestorm that burned into San Francisco’s Mission District following the great earthquake of 1906. Ayer died the following year, just as his skills were in greatest need for rebuilding of the city. A number of his treasure boxes survived and are displayed in Wells Fargo Museums. Wells Fargo’s iconic treasure boxes are a tangible reminder of the multigenerational span of Wells Fargo’s history and its long legacy of security.

A black and white photo of a two-story Victorian home. On the porch are two men and one woman. In background are a water tank, windmill, and small building with sign reading J.Y. Ayer Carpenter & Builder.
A black and white photo of two-story workshop building. Several men stand outside surrounded by wood boxes. One man stands in open loft door above. The sign on top of the building reads J.Y. Ayer Carpenter & Builder.
Four Wells Fargo wagons fill the street outside of a carpentry workshop building. Three are loaded with a dozen large wood trunks each. Workmen lower a trunk by rope onto a fourth wagon. Workers and wagon drivers stand on and around the wagons.
The Ayer family home and carpentry shop, located on 17th Street in San Francisco.
Photo: Public domain
Ayer and his carpenters take a break from their work.
Photo: Public domain
Newly completed packing trunks are loaded onto Wells Fargo express wagons and ready to be placed into service.
Photo: Public domain
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