Way-Back Wednesday Looks At James Cash Penney and Christmas “Wish Book” Catalogs

Just twelve years after Wyoming attained statehood, JCPenney was founded in 1902 by James Cash Penney.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

December 15, 20219 min read

A statue of James Cash Penney is put up in front of his first store in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
A statue of James Cash Penney is put up in front of his first store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor

As people find themselves fully emerged in the “crunch time” of holiday shopping many of us long for a simpler time, and cannot help but think about the days of shopping the department store “wish book” catalogs – they were delivered in the mail months ahead of the Christmas holiday and by Thanksgiving there were a multitude of dog-eared pages. It was certainly easy to figure out what the kids and grandkids wanted back then!

For a trip down Memory Lane, click here to check out this 

1967 Christmas Wish Book

The small town of Kemmerer is a well-known coal mining community, home of the Naughton coal-fired power plant. Located on the west side of Wyoming in Lincoln County, you can expect to find remains of a few ghost towns and of course the impressive Fossil Butte National Monument. Kemmerer is also known as the birthplace of the JC Penney department store. 

Just twelve years after Wyoming attained statehood, JCPenney was founded in 1902 by James Cash Penney. The first store, named The Golden Rule, set the standard by which they have operated for more than a century, and that is to treat others as we would like to be treated.

James Cash Penney, Circa 1902

James Cash Penney was born in Hamilton, Missouri on September 16, 1875, on a farm in Caldwell County. He was the seventh of twelve children, only six of whom lived to adulthood, born to James Cash Penney and Mary Frances (born Paxton) Penney. Penney’s father was a Baptist preacher and farmer. His father also held a strict discipline in making his son pay for his own clothing once he reached eight years of age.

After graduation from Hamilton High School, Penney intended to attend college with the hopes of becoming a lawyer. However, his father’s untimely death forced a change in plans asPenney was forced to take the job as a store clerk to help support his family. He relocated to Colorado at the advice of a doctor, hoping that a better climate would improve his tuberculosis. Penney ventured west to Longmont, Colorado.

In 1898, Penney went to work for Thomas Callahan and Guy Johnson, who owned dry goods stores called Golden Rule stores in Colorado and Wyoming. The following year, in 1899, Callahan sent Penney to Evanston, Wyoming, to work with Johnson in another Golden Rule store. Callahan and Johnson asked Penney to join them in opening a brand new Golden Rule store. Using money from savings and a loan, Penney joined the partnership and moved with his wife and infant son to Kemmerer to start his own store.

Penney opened the new store on April 14, 1902. He participated in the creation of two more stores and the so-called “mother store”, in Kemmerer, opened as the chain’s second location in 1904. Penney purchased full interest in all three locations when Callahan and Johnson dissolved their partnership in 1907. 

By 1909 Penney moved his company headquarters about 140 miles to Salt Lake City, Utah. This move came out of the need to be closer to banks and railroads. By 1912, Penney had grown to 34 stores in the Rocky Mountain States. 

In 1913, the company was incorporated under the new name, J. C. Penney Company, with William Henry McManus as a co-founder.

By 1914, the need arose to simplify buying, financing, and transportation of goods and the headquarters was moved to New York City. 

In 1916, he began to expand the chain east of the Mississippi. With rapid growth from the guiding principles of James Cash Penney the company operated 175 stores in 22 states in the United States in 1917. During the 1920s, the Penney company expanded nationwide, with 120 stores in 1920, mostly in the west.

By 1921 Penney had a home (Belle Isle) on Biscayne Bay in Miami. Along with his business partner Ralph W. Gwinn, Penney had invested heavily in Florida real estate including 120,000 acres in Clay County. Some of this land became Penney Farms. This was also the start of Foremost Dairy Products Inc. Penney later recruited Paul E. Reinhold to run the dairy.

J. C. Penney had acquired The Crescent Corset Company in 1920, the company’s first wholly owned subsidiary. In 1922, the company’s oldest active private brand, Big Mac work clothes, was launched. The company opened its 500th store in 1924 in Hamilton, Missouri, James Cash Penney’s hometown.  And by 1924, the number of stores reached 1,400.

When the company opened the 1,000th store in 1928, gross business had reached $190 million (equivalent to $2.86 billion in today’s money).

In 1929 Penney reported income of more than $1 million annually. The large income allowed Penney to be heavily involved in many philanthropic causes during the 1920s, however most of this work was halted when the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression left Penney in financial ruin.

After the crash, Penney lost virtually all of his personal wealth and borrowed against his life insurance policies to help the company meet its payroll. The financial setbacks took a toll on his health, and he checked himself into the Battle Creek Sanitarium for treatment. After hearing the hymn “God Will Take Care of You” (written by Civilla Durfee Martin) being sung at a service in the hospital’s chapel, he became a born-again Christian.

Even after relinquishing daily operating management of the company, Penney continued his active involvement in managing the company and its stores.

Interestingly, in 1940, a young Sam Walton began working at a J. C. Penney in Des Moines, Iowa. Penney himself trained the young man on how to wrap packages with a minimal amount of paper and ribbon. Walton later went on to found future retailer Walmart in 1962. 

Penney remained chairman of the board until 1946, and after that, as honorary chairman until his death in 1971. Until the end of his life, he continued to go to his offices. Penney also directed his stores to be closed on Sunday so employees could attend church.

By 1941, J. C. Penney operated 1,600 stores in all of the lower 48 states. In 1956, J. C. Penney started national advertising with a series of advertisements in Life magazine. J. C. Penney credit cards were first issued in 1959.

J. C. Penney expanded to include Alaska and Hawaii in the 1960s. The company opened stores in Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska in 1962. The Penney Building in Anchorage partially collapsed and was damaged beyond repair in the 1964 Alaska earthquake. The company rebuilt the store but opted for a shorter building on a larger footprint and followed up by building Anchorage’s first public parking garage, which opened in 1968.

Structural damage to the J.C. Penney store in Anchorage post-earthquake.

In 1962, J. C. Penney entered discount merchandising with the acquisition of General Merchandise Company which gave them The Treasury stores. However these discount operations proved unsuccessful and the stores were shuttered in 1981.

In 1963, J. C. Penney issued its first catalog. The company operated in-store catalog desks in eight states. The catalogs were distributed by the Milwaukee Catalog distribution center.

By 1966, J. C. Penney had effectively “finished” its national expansion by opening its Honolulu, Hawaii store, at Ala Moana Center. All Hawaii stores were later closed, the last in 2003. 

The Penney store at Plaza Las Américas mall in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which opened in 1968, featured three levels and 261,500 square feet of space. It was the largest J. C. Penney until a 300,000-square-foot mega- store was dedicated at Greater Chicago’s Woodfield Mall in 1971. The Woodfield Mall store served as the largest in the chain until a replacement store opened at Plaza Las Américas in 1998, which is 350,000 square feet in size. 

In 1969, the company acquired Thrift Drug, a chain of drugstores headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It also acquired Supermarkets Interstate, an Omaha-based food retailer which operated leased departments in J. C. Penney stores, The Treasury stores, and Thrift Drug stores.

On February 12, 1971, James Cash Penney died at the age of 95. The company’s stores were closed the morning of his funeral on February 16. That year, the company’s revenues reached $5 billion (equivalent to $32 billion in 2021) for the first time and its catalog business made a profit for the first time.

J. C. Penney reached its peak number of stores in 1973, with 2,053 stores, 300 of which were full-line establishments. However, the company was hard hit by the 1974 recession and stock price fell by two-thirds. 

In 1977, J. C. Penney sold its stores in Italy to La Rinascente and also removed its Supermarkets Interstate leased departments. 

In 1978, the J. C. Penney Historic District in Kemmerer, Wyoming, was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark. 

While the company and the J.C. Penney retails stores have undergone many changes, both in their physical composition and financially, J.C. Penney is still a familiar name, offering affordable merchandise and clothing. Most eight-year-old children don’t have to worry about buying their own clothes, which is great, however they’re also missing out on that experience of shopping with the eyes, fingers nimbly scouring the pages of the J.C. Penney Christmas Catalog, anticipating what items Santa will have for them under the tree and in the stockings on Christmas morning. 

The WishbookWeb Project has set out to preserve the pages from history; see more here. WishbookWeb.com first launched in 2006, with the initial scanning project having started a year earlier in 2005.  From the outset, the goal of the WishbookWeb project has been to archive, preserve, and share the wonderful holiday gift catalogs of the past – making them freely-available to anyone with a web browser.  Inspired by the pioneering work of websites like Plaidstallions and MegoMuseum, who had already been sharing select pages of vintage catalogs online, the goal was to build upon that idea by sharing entire volumes, every section and every page.  As you see it now, WishbookWeb.com represents the product of hundreds of hours of work to create the current archive.

If you have some of the old catalogs you just may have a treasure trove and didn’t even realize it – catalogs are selling online for anywhere from $20 to hundreds of dollars per book. 

Retail J.C. Penney stores still operate in Wyoming in Kemmerer, Casper and Cheyenne. 

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter