The Pioneers Of Chicago Blazed A Selling Trail That’s Still Visible Today…A Mr. Magazine™ Blast From The Past, Circa April, 1953

August 15, 2019

Once again Mr. Magazine™ has been exploring the past, still in that wondrous year known as 1953 (the year of my birth, don’t you know) and I ran across this story in Grafic, which was the Sunday Chicago Tribune’s magazine at the time. The history and the inspiration of this story had to bolster Chicago’s own spirit when it ran on April 19, 1953. The pioneers of the Windy City were the epitome of entrepreneurs. From William Wrigley Jr., who only had $32 in his pockets when he set out to teach the world to chew gum, to Montgomery Ward, who had the world’s first mail order house, Chicago certainly has something to brag about when it comes to the humble beginnings that certainly blazed the trail for what it is today – a major metropolitan destination.

And print was there in 1953 to showcase it! The story is amazingly historical without being preachy and does what ink on paper still does so brilliantly – tells a unique story in a format that can be archived and drawn upon in any generation. That’s one of the things that Mr. Magazine™ loves about ink on paper: if you decide you want to go diving into 1953 or any other year, the information is still there. It hasn’t disappeared into the realms of cyberspace, never to be seen again.

In fact, in the book I’m working on about the magazines of March 1953, I chose my birth year and month (Feb. or April will do if I can’t find a March issue or if the magazine was bimonthly) to concentrate on and physically have 532 magazines to hold in my hands and touch and do research from – all from that month. Amazing! I dare you to find 532 websites out there from 1953… (Mr. Magazine™ feels safe in offering that dare). So, enjoy this Blast From the Past and let me know what you think of the story and the idea that ink on paper lasts forever – even from way back in 1953…

SELLING – it helped to build Chicago

By Otis Carney

April 19, 1953


The City’s Pioneers Were Men with Ideas; They Introduced Merchandising Ways that Made a Metropolis of Frontier Town

“In Chicago,” Potter Palmer once said, “you’ve got to think big!”

The young dreamers thought big, all right, too big for the small towns whence they’d come. But in Chicago, they saw a new kind of place…a place where you could sell a dream and mass produce it to the world.

It was a salesman’s town and they flocked to it, launching the ideas which one day would shower mankind with vast new comforts, conveniences, and pleasures…and even, upon occasion, change the course of history.

The Chicago they found was a city of shacks and plank roads rising out of a stinking morass of mud.

“Queen of the Lake?” shuddered novelist Frederika Bremer in 1853. “Chicago’s not a queen, she’s a huckstress, an ugly confusion of stores and shops. People come here to trade, to make money, not to live.”

Yet the people kept coming, settling. Rail traffic boomed, land values multiplied a hundred times almost overnight. Twenty years old in 1853, the huckstress boasted one salesman to every 92 inhabitants!

But a young Virginian named Cyrus H. McCormick had gotten there before the crowd, and the kind of selling he would do was soon to revolutionize the economy of the nation. Following the westward-shifting grain belt, he settled in Chicago in 1847, and by 1850 was mass producing the reapers he’d experimented with in the east. By the time he was producing 1,600 machines a year, McCormick had already amazed his competition by merchandising directly to the farmers…men whom his critics said would be too terrified of the new invention to buy it!

To get more reapers into the field, he extended liberal credit, begging the farmers at least to try the machine and then pay for it out of money it would earn. Again and again he entered his Virginia reaper in public contests, in 1851 capturing world fame by winning at the Crystal Palace exposition in England.

Within 10 years, his dream became a million dollar business and a vital weapon in the Civil War. Said Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war: “The reaper is to the north what slavery is to the south. It releases regiments of young men from the western harvest fields and at the same time keeps up the supply of bread to our armies. Without McCormick’s invention, the north could not win, and the Union would be dismembered.”

Meanwhile, other dreams were changing the face of Chicago, raising great department stores and shaping the city into a mid-continental market place.

A quiet newcomer from Conway, Mass., had begun to show the world a new kind of selling. If the lady didn’t get what she wanted, she could take it back and her money would be returned. Tho a startling innovation at the time, the cash refund seemed perfectly logical to the instinctive salesman, Marshall Field…as logical, for instance, as his display window technique to attract passing customers.

With the pace of business increasing all over the nation, a young contractor began to dream of a way to make train journeys more comfortable and less tedious. In 1858, George M. Pullman remodeled his first coach into a sleeping car.

Railroad presidents scoffed: putting carpets on the floor of a train was a useless extravagance; as far as playing chambermaid to a lot of clean sheets and pillowcases…ridiculous. The passengers, they claimed, would get into bed with their boots on. Think of the laundry bills! Think of the moral aspects, cried others! A moving vehicle carrying men and women thru the night could only end up a place of sin.

Pullman then organized his own company. He’d be the chambermaid himself, and would rent out his service. In 1865 he built Pioneer A, and installed it on the Chicago and Alton, soon afterward hooking it on the train which brought Lincoln’s body to Springfield.

The public swarmed to the new hotel cars… “a queen’s boudoir could hardly excel them”…and Pullman’s idea swept across the railroads of the world.

By 1875, another young Chicago pioneer had devised an equally ingenious use of the rails. Gustavus Swift, arriving that year from Massachusetts, realized that he could sell meat cheaper if, instead of shipping cattle east, he could slaughter them in Chicago, dress the cuts there, and send them on by refrigerated railroad cars. In 1879, he turned his dream into reality, breaking all precedents by shipping a car of dressed beef to Boston.

The railroads immediately attacked him. Fearing they’d lose their beef traffic, they refused to give him cars. He countered by building his own. Following this, they boycotted the hauling of dressed beef shipments, at which Swift turned to a smaller road and concluded a profitable agreement. In time, pressure of competition forced the big lines to capitulate, and the packing business went on wheels for keeps. Swift also became the first to sell cuts of meat which were formerly discarded, and thus reduced the cost of dressed meat on American tables. By the time of his death in 1903, he had mushroomed Swift & Company into an organization 80 times its original size.

As the nation’s population center inched slowly west, salesmen from Chicago rushed out to meet it. One of them was a 28-year-old storekeeper from Michigan, a man who, from his years as a drummer in the middle west, had recognized the vast potential of the rural market. If the farmers couldn’t get to the city, Montgomery Ward resolved to get the city to them, and this he did thru the mail order catalog and the world’s first mail order house.

He called it “Golden Rule Selling,” guaranteed that his customers would always be treated fairly, and in cases where they were dissatisfied, their money would be refunded at once.

Hard on the heels of Ward were two more newcomers to the city…Richard Sears, a station agent in Minnesota, and A.C. Roebuck, raised on a farm in Indiana. In 1895, Julius Rosenwald, a clothing manufacturer, joined this team and Sears, Roebuck & Co. was born, becoming eventually a multi-billion dollar merchandising empire.

From that point on, there was no stopping Chicago’s salesmen. William Wrigley Jr., coming to the city at the age of 29, had only $32 in his pockets when he set out to teach the world to chew gum. Gifted with rare insight into volume selling, he continually merchandised his product to wholesalers and retailers, countering bad times by increasing advertising and promotion. In the midst of the panic in 1907, his tremendous campaign for Spearmint made it the country’s largest selling gum within three years.

Chicago’s proud record in the selling field will be honored next Friday night, April 24, at the International amphitheater. In a Salute to Selling, 12,000 leading sales figures from all over the nation will pay tribute to the men and the dreams which, in a scant hundred years, transformed a muddy shack town into one of the great market places of the world.

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