by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The forerunners of Amazon, United Parcel Service, Federal Express and other businesses that sell and ship goods quickly were the express companies that quickly delivered packages and parcels. In 1839, Hamden and Company used rail, which was still in its early stages in America, to ship packages from Boston to Providence, Rhode Island and later expanded the service to New York.
When the Gold Rush burst forth in California, Adams and Company initiated an express service there from the eastern states. It was followed three years later by the formation of Wells, Fargo and Company, which, of course, morphed into one of the nation’s largest banks. Much of the early express services utilized horses and horse-drawn vehicles, such as stagecoaches, for delivery, but the dramatic growth of rail soon meant that express service was handled that way.
By the end of the 19th century, the industry was dominated by four firms: Adams Express Company (which purchased Hamden and Company); Southern Express Company; Wells Fargo; and Wells Fargo. Seeking a piece of the action, the United States Postal Service initiated parcel post service in 1913.
During World War I, the federal government consolidated railroad operations for the war effort under the auspices of the United States Railroad Administration and all express contracts with the railroads were terminated. The Secretary of the Treasury, William Gibbs McAdoo, proposed forming a single express company for wartime purposes and American Railway Express Agency was formed in July 1918. The American Express portion constituted some 40% of the shared property and equipment of the new agency and later expanded to aviation through an Air Express branch.
In March 1929, the American Railway Express concern morphed into Railway Express Agency, which was owned by eighty-six railroad companies proportional to the express traffic used on these lines. Soon after its evolution, the REA issued pamphlets to promote its services for shipping Christmas holiday gifts.
The Homestead’s collection includes a pair of REA pamphlets for the 1929 holiday season. One has a strikingly colorful scene of a basket of fruit in a landscape framed by tall snow-covered mountains and advertised low rates for shipping fruits, nuts and vegetables. These items had to include nuts in the shell and vegetables that were garnished with the meat of nuts or glace fruits to take advantage of special package rates.
Specifically, these rates were made effective on 15 November 1928 before the REA was constituted and the pamphlet noted “are generally lower than parcel post (U.S. Postal Service) charges.” The item listed rates by pound (from four to ten) for these food items to several East Coast states.
In addition, there were rates provided for fruits and vegetables that were green, dried, canned or preserved, but not packed in earthen or glass containers, as well as nuts in the shell, olives (which could be in glass or earthen vessels), maraschino cherries, brandied fruit, and jams, jellies and preserves (these latter also not in glass or earthen jars.) For these, the rates were for weights of 8-100 pounds and cost less than the first range of produce.
The document noted that the rates published “enable the forwarding of appropriate gifts from the West to your Eastern friends during the Holiday Season and all the year” and noted that stores offering special holiday packs “should avail themselves of these rates” to provide customers “the benefit of expedited express service at low cost.”
The other document has an image of Santa Claus carrying a Railway Express Agency sign with flying gifts overhead and three figures eagerly waiting to receive these items. Titled “Here He Comes!” the document noted that “to have your gifts arrive on time and in perfect condition is more than half the fun of holiday giving.”
Moreover, it averred that sending Christmas presents by express was the easiest and cheapest way to send those packages. Convenience was enhanced by having express personnel pick up parcels so that “no time is wasted in waiting to be served,” which was touted as being useful “to the busy man or woman.”
An additional benefit was that REA charges included liability insurance for up to $50 on every shipment weighing 100 pounds or less. Those packages containing candy, fruit and nuts in the shell, “all welcomed holiday presents,” were available for shipment at special rates of 25% below regular ones. Also mentioned in this pamphlet was that books, another popular Christmas present, could be shipped for 8 cents per pound, with a minimum of 15 cents or up to $10 in value.
Finally, as Christmas Day got nearer for the procrastinator, it was added that “Air Express service will help you make up for lost time.” At the bottom was a motto: “When your Christmas Packages are ready, Call the Railway Expressman, He is Santa’s Chief Assistant.”
Both pamphlets have stamps listing the addresses and phone numbers for six Los Angeles offices, including three in downtown, one on the west side, one in Hollywood and another in Highland Park.
As for REA, it lost significant ground in the express business after the 1950s to carriers that relied on trucks or air service, including United Parcel Service (which started as a small local service in Seattle in 1907 and expanded through the west coast with UPS becoming the firm name by the mid-1920s) and the USPS. REA went out of business in 1975 after years of struggling to maintain a foothold in a very competitive industry.