by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As noted in a previous post dealing with the January 1919 issue of Barker Brothers’ Store News, an employee magazine, the long-standing Los Angeles furniture store opened in the early 1880s by Obadiah Barker and, while his three sons took over the enterprise after a few years, it was known as O.T. Barker and Sons until 1898 when the name was changed to Barker Brothers. As Los Angeles experienced phenomenal growth, its burgeoning population provided plenty of business and profit for the store. One of its many customers, after some of their oil royalties rolled in in 1917 and allowed them to buy and furnish a large Craftsman home in Alhambra, was the Temple family.
Early the following year, the business began, through its printing department, its magazine “for the edification of our employees” through the store’s “Help The Other Fellow Association.” The front page of its November 1918 issue, which is tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection, proclaimed that “We Honor Those Who Do Us Honor,” meaning the 79 employees who were serving in the American Expeditionary Force during the First World War, which came to a merciful close that month. It added that “we are thankful they are all blue stars,” meaning on active duty, but that there were “no gold stars so far as we know!” with this latter meaning none of those workers were known to have died while in the service. There was also a statement that employees and “our allies . . . helped win the great victory.” The issue was published after the armistice of 11 November, it was explained inside, “the ‘flu’ hit our Editorial staff and the store in general to such an extent that were unable to circulate” the issue at the beginning of the month as intended. So, what was published was because “we have managed to get together enough material to make this issue we are now handing you of enough interest to warrant its publication.”
The references inside to the war and Barker employees consists in letters written by four of them. Raymond Wooster, a private with the 314th Train (meaning either with the ammunition, supply, engineer or sanitary train) accompanying the 89th Infantry Division and its two infantry and one field artillery brigades, wrote on 21 September that “I am somewhere in France not far from German soil, so you see we have them on the run so far,” was readying for action, adding that he “will probably drive a machine [truck] soon.” With the weather getting colder and rain falling consistently, “it sure is hard for truck drivers,” though “the mud is only three feet deep.”
Corporal Sydney H. Baer, who transferred from the 160th Infantry Division to the Quartermaster Corps, which coordinated overall management of supplies for the American Expeditionary Force, and its 6th Depot Division, wrote on 17 October that he’d just arrived safely in Europe. He noted, however, that “although I now realize that there is no chance for me of ever getting to the front, I am trying to do my bit in this capacity.” As Wooster did, Baer said “I surely do miss Barker Bros.’ Store News . . . if you would only continue to sending me [it,] I would certainly appreciate it very much.”
Corporal M.L. Tibbals, with Company H of the 361st Infantry, also corresponded from France and informed the store that “I have been working like blue hell for a number of weeks” though he also “saw a wee bit of Scotland and England and half wandered all over hell’s half-acre in France.” Yet, he continued, “my co[mpany] is probably on the line now but I caught some fever and had to remain behind the very evening they started up real close.” Whether he came down with the so-called “Spanish flu” which was in its second and much larger and deadlier wave of a pandemic that would kill tens of millions throughout the world in 1918-19 was not stated, but Tibbals was “lying between the sheets in an evacuation hospital,” but “was not very sick” and noted “I’d be satisfied right now with less attention and more to eat.” In fact, he wryly stated “as soon as they decide to feed me I shall get out.” He concluded by writing that “I hate to give anyone a chance to say I’m yellow,” but hoped that he would “be able to enclose that bloody punctured sheet you wished, or else to have my justly allotted daisy bed and be pushing them up.”
Finally, there was Louis Lesage, whose letter did not indicate his rank or areas of service within the A.E.F., but as it was not his first missive, that information must’ve been included in a previous issue, though he looked to be with a quartermaster’s corps or train. In any case, he notified his “friends and fellow employees” that “I have just returned to Paris from the front for supplies [and] we are provisioning a truck . . . with such delicacies as chocolate, gum, almonds, soup cubes, wafers, etc., and writing material for the soldiers.” He added “out kitchen car is a great success, and we are serving thousands of boys to and from the front with hot drinks and all the comforts possible, within three miles of the German lines and in the hearing of the roar of artillery on all sides of us night and day.” Lesage added that they were encamped a kilometer from the main camp in the woods and were camouflaged. At night, however, “we remain in the basement of a rambling old country stone house—all shot to pieces, as is every building in this sector.” Once he had a couple of sleepless nights under his belt, he was able to settle in better “in spite of the unearthly noises and the fear of mustard and other gases,” which is why they always carried steel helmets and gas masks.
Lesage further reported that they were near the town of Chéry-Chartreuve, northeast of Paris and just west of Reims and that “this is all terrain that the Allies have taken back from the Boche [Germans].” He noted that there were “no women or children hereabouts, and this seems so strange to me.” While in Paris, however, to pick up those supplies, he noted that “the wonderful period furniture that I see in homes and public buildings” along with draperies, art and other decorative element ” as well as their architectural exteriors” led Lesage to find it “a never ending source of wonder and pleasure to me.” This and the multitudes of statues in parks and on the streets led him back to his previous studies and discussions with Barker Brothers employees. He repeated a statement that “every man has two countries—his own and France,” long attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but actually dating to an 1870s French play. Lesage ended his letter by stating “if I were not so busy I would be more lonesome, but at that my mind flies back to California continually.” In the January 1919 issue linked above, Lesage was known as “the chocolate soldier” for his serving the sweet delights as part of his job on the front.
A short statement on the same page as the letters noted that, when it came to store employees giving to the fourth issue for the Liberty Loan, a bond program to raise funds for the war effort, a total of $62,700 was raised, representing $72 per capital for the roughly 870 employees of the store. The subscription on the final day was $8,150 for the bonds, dated 24 October, callable after fifteen years and maturing after twenty at an interest rate of 4.25%. In 1934, however, with the country mired in the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration decided to default on payments because of a lack of gold reserves with the overall national debt over five times what was in reserve.
As for remainder of the publication, president William A. Barker’s monthly message originally stated that several of Germany’s allies were beaten and “we are whipping German and the whole War will soon be over,” though he added a postscript that “since writing the above article, the Germans have unconditionally surrendered.” Barker also implored “now let us all get together and whip the Spanish ‘flu,'” though the postscript noted “although the doctors say that the ‘flu’ is on the decrease, the people were so jubilant in celebrating our victory that if there any ‘flu’ germs left they were surely stirred up last Monday.” We would call such gatherings today “superspreader events.” Barker concluded by writing “the great period of reconstruction is now at hand. Let us all use the same good sense and energy in working out this problem that we have exercised at the beginning and throughout the war period.”
Elsewhere, there were typical contents for a magazine of this kind, admonitions to work hard and “keep plugging;” to be cheerful; to concentrate hard on the task at hand; to be courteous to customers; to demonstrate “pep” or energy; and to smile. Reports were provided from departments of the store such as those for carpets and rugs, pens, stoves, dining room furniture, and mail orders. Another short piece focused on Thanksgiving products available through the linen department as “everyone thinks of Turkey at this time and the housewife feels proud if she has a nice supply of linen to display.” For employees, it was added that there were plenty of table linens along with bedding, robes, blankets, couch covers and others “at such remarkably low prices that all may be supplied, no matter how close they may have figured the home expenses.”
One article discussed company exhibits at the Orange County Fair, held at Huntington Beach during the first week of October, with Barker Brothers using a vacant store to display kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners, swing machines and others, while firms like Ben-Hur Coffee Company, Hauser Packing Company for meat, and the Globe A-1 Milling Company provided demonstrations. Food cooked with appliances were sold and the proceeds given to the American Red Cross and its war efforts, while a 56-member naval band performing at the event was fed as well. Several first prizes were secured along with “some very good sales.”
Another interesting item concerned “Sales Class Meetings” that were adapted because “there has been a restriction on any large gathering” due to health regulations during the pandemic so that there was “the happy result of bringing all small groups with kindred interests close together” for instruction by department managers “to these little classes.” Notably, it was explained that “there need be no stagnation of the imagination in decoration and furnishing” so that “music, art, romance, history, physical geography and natural history are all working factors in a thorough knowledge of Barker Bros. numerous departments, and that one need not be wanting in information to prospective customers.” This seemed to be what Lesage was talking about in his letter. So, the history of the types of woods used in dining room furniture or the kinds of ancient musical instruments were found throughout the world were cited as examples.
The “reverence for our merchandise” was also the subject of an article imploring sales staff to avoid the tendency “to become thoughtless and careless when handling” the reverence and veneration of items in the store. Instances given included “lounging on the arm of a delicately covered chair” on display or a “‘slap-bang’ into crowded samples, casting side a chair or a table, which takes pleasure in gouging another piece.” In setting up displays, employees were asked to take extra care to not “set Mr. Extra Piece a-top of a very convenient davenport which is covered in delicate velvet or damask” so that it might leave “a few nice little imprints.” By being more mindful of these issues, the customer, described here as a woman “justly proud” of her selection of furniture “for her children and [for] which she entertains her dearest friends and guests” benefits from extra care and attention. The piece ended with the admonition “we can protect our customer, reduce our credits, and hold our customer through our reverence for the merchandise we are selling.”
Though this issue of Barker Brothers’ Store News may have suffered in content and length from the ravages of the flu epidemic, it is still fascinating to peruse, both for general content pertaining to store employees and departments, as well as for the specific coverage of those staff who were overseas with the American Expeditionary Force as the First World War came to a close.