“A Square Deal” from “Barker Brothers’ Store News,” January 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the tremendous transformation of the American economy and business world during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the manifestations and the evolving relationship between employers and employees was the company newsletter or magazine.  Unheard of before 1900, these publications became increasingly common during the first decades of the new century.

Typically, these productions covered business developments for the company, news of individual employees, words of wisdom from corporate leaders, and homilies about the importance of hard work, teamwork, customer service, quality of execution, attention to safety and the like.  Sometimes, these publications came across very paternalistically, with the employer dispensing pearls of wisdom about being more productive with doses of prescriptions for how to work and, often, live outside of the workplace.

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Los Angeles Express, 12 January 1919.

Still, these newsletters and magazines were, generally, a significant improvement in how employers communicated with their employees and the era often featured other examples of a closer connection, including company picnics, athletic teams, profit sharing plans, after hours education courses, and more.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an issue of Barker Brothers’ Store News from January 1919, this being the concluding edition of the first volume of the company magazine.  About a year and a half ago, a post on this blog discussed the 1920s construction of the flagship company store in downtown Los Angeles and some of the firm’s history was provided.

Briefly, Obadiah Barker came to Los Angeles from Colorado as a young man and opened a furniture store in 1881 with a partner named Mueller.  When the former retired and the latter sold his interest, the business was taken over by Barker’s sons, Obadiah J., William and Charles.   During the ensuing Boom of the Eighties toward the end of the decade, the store was known O.T. Barker and Sons and didn’t take the name Barker Brothers until 1898.  In 1908, Obadiah J. Barker died and his brothers continued running the business.

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In 1919, the store was situated on the east side of Broadway between 7th and 8th and a full-page ad from 12 January in the Los Angeles Express promoted the retailer’s “39th Great Annual Clearance,” involving at least $1 million in inventory, consisting of furniture, rugs, wallpaper, draperies, appliances, linen and bedding, china and much more.

One section, however, promoted “Good Will the Foundation of Business” and quoted President Woodrow Wilson, who was at the peak of his popularity as the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles after World War I were about to begin amid much enthusiasm (soon, however, to dissipate significantly in an increasingly isolationist America), with “trade is the GREAT AMICABLE INSTRUMENT of the world.”  Declaiming that “successful stores have found that satisfied customers are their greatest asset,” owners William and Charles Barker added their signatures to this paean.

Among the satisfied customers, incidentally, were Walter and Laura Temple, who, after their stunning turn of fortune when oil was found in great quantity on their Montebello Oil Field lease, used Barker Brothers for the furnishing of the Alhambra home they purchased in late 1917 and for the Homestead in subsequent years.

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As for the Barker Brothers’ Store News, the front cover commemorated the new year of 1919 with the statement “use Time well, and you will get more from him than he will take from you.”  There were also messages from William and Charles Barker, the former’s being a “President’s Message” that briefly mentioned a “new educational plan we have just adopted, and which has made an eight-hour work day advisable.”  He added that “the foundation on which we have built our business, is a square deal to our customers, our employees and our firm.”

As for Charles, his longer statement included a thanks to company employees “for the many tokens of solicitude and expressions of sympathy in our time of bereavement,” this being referred to specifically beneath his message by an appreciative statement by his son Clarence of his appreciation from employees for a floral piece sent after the death of his wife, Ava, who died in mid-December from the flu, an epidemic of which raged throughout the world at the time.

Charles’ statement added that the humility of the fragile nature of life was such that “all of this applies to the great house of Barker Bros.  No man is indispensable.  The worker dies, but the work goes on.”  He ended by wishing employees “a Happy and Prosperous New Year.”

Charles’ younger son, Erle, and William’s son Lawrence, meanwhile, had just returned to Los Angeles following their military service during the recently concluded World War, the armistice of which was signed in November 1918.  Both wrote about the great pleasure they felt when receiving and reading editions of the employee magazine while away in the service of their country.

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There were also reports from Barker Brothers employees who were serving in the military, including a complete reprint of a letter from Nelson Holman, who worked as a sapper, or trench and tunnel digger, for the American Expeditionary Force and wrote from a stable on a French farm.  He wrote, however, of a six days’ leave in London, where he noticed that the famed Selfridge’s department store was run along the same plan as Hamburger’s, a Los Angeles analog that later became May Company.

Another long piece, reprinted from the local Roman Catholic periodical, The Tidings, concerned Louis LeSage, a 50-something Los Angeles resident, who worked as a secretary for Knights of Columbus organization, and who was “known as the ‘Chocolate Soldier’ . . . with his ‘rolling kitchen,’ serving chocolate to the soldiers in the trenches and to the wounded returning from the front line, and this during a continuous service of 100 days.”  Great detail was given about the work LeSage and others did in the fields of battle, including the grueling Battle of the Argonne Forest (where Joseph Kauffman, brother of Walter Temple’s business manager, was killed in action.)

Employee D.G. McRae forwarded a letter from his son, Kenneth, who wrote a missive in September 1918 to his family from the cockpit of an airplane as he was in training in New York.  One excerpt observed, “we’re three thousand feet up, heading west, about five miles off Shinniecock Bay [Long Island].  Bombing plane ahead and to the left of us . . . just made a dive with engine throttled down to turn on another gas tank . . .”

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There was a reprinted poem from another company newsletter (the William M. Crane Company, a Philadelphia stove manufacturer) on “Our Boys Coming Home” that actually came from the Civil War and a stanza of which is:

The vacant fireside places

Have waited for them long;

The love light lacks their faces,

The chorus waits their song;

A shadowy fear has haunted

The long-deserted room;

But now our prayers are granted,

Our boys are coming home.

One Barker Brothers employee, however, did not return home from the war.  Clarence Everingham, who was employed making lamp shades for some five years, enlisted in fall 1917 and was shipped out to France at the start of the following year.  The private with the Eighteenth U.S. Infantry won accolades for distinguished conduct in the capture and detention, with about a dozen fellow soldiers, of some 30 Germans during the Battle of the Marne in July 1918, but died on the battlefield a few months later, about a month before the cessation of hostilities.

At home, there were pieces on a variety of subjects, such as “Two Greatest Things in the World—Giving and Serving,” which tied the work of the Operating Division of Barker Brothers with Christian concepts of giving to and serving others.

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A projection of activity for 1919 noted that “with our immense stock of well selected goods, almost perfect service, and our splendid organization, I can see a great future.”  It was expected that the new year would outshine the past one in sales and success.  Moreover, the writer prophesied,

this southern country will, in a few more years, be a veritable paradise, for, on account of wonderful climactic conditions, grand scenery, and incomparable roads, it will, each year, become more and more a playground for those of means and a home for the middle classes, on account of the good soil and irrigation features made possible through the bringing into this section of the large supply of water from the Owens river country [via the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913].

Other news came from the drapery work room, the credit department, the mail order department (including the new store catalog), and others.  The educational course mentioned in William Barker’s brief missive was slightly elaborated upon by his son Lawrence, who reported that instruction for salespersons began at the first of the month and that, while it was technical, he hoped that there would be “the benefit of general cultural work as well as things pertaining to the business” in future offerings.

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There was also a report from “Our Store Library,” which appears to have another new employee benefit and planned together with the educational course program.  It was added that “the aim of the library is to be educational in all the phases of store activity—not only in commercialism and salesmanship, but in the sciences and arts.”  This latter, though, was embodied in what home furnishings meant for Barker Brothers.  Namely, “it is necessary to be a constant student of home furnishing nowadays if one is to be fully able to meet the exacting demands of a public which is growing in ideals.”

There was also an information bureau in place, so that, as an example, “if you were selling a Chippendale chair, a little personal touch on the life of [British cabinet maker Thomas] Chippendale might be added to interest your customer.  Books (including works of fiction), magazines and other reference items could be checked out without a library card for periods of from one day to two weeks.  The library was situated on the second floor behind the linen and bedding department and it was noted “the more frequently you call upon it for education and inspiration, the better it will be serving the mission for which it is intended.”

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Browsing the Barker Brothers Store News, along with other similar business publications in the museum’s holdings, is an interesting and informative look at the development of corporate culture in greater Los Angeles and American broadly during the early 20th century.  We’ll close this post with a cute little plea from the editors:

If you have a bit of news,

Send it in.

Or a joke that will amuse,

Send it in,

An incident that’s true,

A photograph that’s new,

We want to hear from YOU—

Send it in!

 

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