Apparently the “Idea Man” trip from Des Moines to Atlanta and return ended along in April 1914. It was then that the assignment as makeup man for the Merchants Trade Journal came, related in the beginning of the preceding chapter. This assignment, with a desk in the composing room of the Successful Farming plant, interspersed with writing advertising copy for clients of the Journal’s service department, lasted six or seven months.
Becoming a Typist in Two Weeks
It was about the beginning of November 1914 that I was assigned to the next, and last, “Idea Man” trip. This time I was to proceed west as far as Grand Island, Nebraska, then zigzag south to Houston, Texas, then east to Birmingham, Alabama, then north to Detroit, and back to Des Moines.
Earlier that year the first portable typewriter had been put on the market. It was only some six months after the first little folding Corona had come out that Mr. Boreman presented me with one.
“Herbert,” he said, “here is one of the new portable typewriters. We want all the idea material sent in typed hereafter.”
“But,” I protested, “I’ve never learned how to use a typewriter. It would take me a week to peck out one single day’s reports on that thing.”
“Well that’s your problem,” grinned Mr. Boreman. “The way to get things accomplished is to put a prod on yourself. Most of us never get around to doing a thing until necessity drives us. So I guess necessity forces you to learn how to type—and quick! For we are requiring that all your notes, data and reports be typed on that baby Corona, and we require that all reports arrive here on time!”
What an assignment!
But the prod was on! Hurriedly I procured an instruction book on typing. But I saw at once that I did not have sufficient time to learn to type with all eight fingers and two thumbs as instructed in the book. I threw the book away, and began to teach myself my own way, using the first two fingers of each hand, and occasionally a thumb on the space bar.
I proceeded west through Atlantic and Council Bluffs, Iowa; through Omaha, Fremont, Columbus and Grand Island, Nebraska.
At Columbus, in the Evans Hotel, I ran across a man who bore a startling resemblance to Elbert Hubbard. He even wore his hair semi-long, with an artist’s bow tie and wide-brimmed hat. He seemed very pleased when I told him he was Hubbard’s double, and that I knew the famed “sage of East Aurora,” and had visited at Roycroft Inn. I forget his name, but it seems he was a state senator.
The quest for interesting and practical ideas used successfully by merchants was unusually productive on this tour. The material for live and useful articles in the Journal was accumulating much faster than I could get them typed by the “hunt and peck” system. I worked late nights hunting for letters on the keyboard and pecking at them. I put the typewriter on my lap in train seats and pecked away furiously while traveling to the next town. But my notes were piling up on me.
From Grand Island, I cut south and east through Hastings, St. Joseph, and arrived in Kansas City Saturday night. By now my plight was desperate. I knew my week’s reports had to be in the Journal office by Monday. I went to the old Baltimore Hotel, then Kansas City’s leading hotel, but long since torn down, and hunted keys and pecked away on that little Corona all night long, going out two or three times through the night to an all-night restaurant for coffee—and kept up the ordeal until Sunday afternoon, getting my week’s reports finally into the post office.
Starting out early Monday morning the tour continued through Lawrence, Topeka, Hutchinson, Wichita and Arkansas City in Kansas; then through Oklahoma, stopping at Blackwell and then Enid. An uncle, my mother’s elder brother, was ticket agent out at Goltry, Oklahoma, some 20 miles west of Enid, and I was able to take an evening train to Goltry and catch an early morning train back, so it was possible to spend the night visiting relatives I had not seen in years.
Next was El Reno. And there, for the first time in my life, I saw real Indians. In the dime stores and the department stores, stout Indian squaws, when tired, would just squat down on the floor in the center of an aisle and remain there until rested. Other shoppers were obliged to squeeze by, if possible, or go around another aisle. Out on the main street, I saw a flash of bright red streak by, leaving a cloud of dust.
“What in the world was that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Oh,” replied a local man, “that’s a young Indian just returned from Carlisle University. He recently inherited a sum of money from the government, and spent it all for the most expensive bright red racing automobile he could find. Since returning from college, he has reverted back to a semi-savage state, and drives his car recklessly wide open down the main street.”
Again on a Saturday night I arrived, this time in Oklahoma City, with a notebook full of ideas piled up on me. Once again there was the all-night ordeal at the folding portable typewriter. But by this time my four fingers seemed to begin finding the right keys almost automatically, and from that time on I was able to keep up with the typed reports. Before this three-month tour ended, I was pecking away on the typewriter at a speed more rapid than most stenographers.
And, come to think of it, I am this very minute, still rapping out these lines with these same four fingers. Only today, I am privileged to click the words off on a large electric typewriter.
However, the present worldwide enterprise was actually begun, back in 1927, by clicking off articles on one of those early model folding Coronas. It could not have had a more humble beginning. But we shall come to that phase of the story in due time.
Leaving Oklahoma City early Monday, Chickasha came next—another Indian reservation town—then Ardmore. Next were Gainesville, Fort Worth and Dallas, Texas. Thanksgiving Day was spent at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas.
The Adolphus in Dallas in those days carried the architectural appearance of being a slightly smaller sister of Chicago’s Blackstone—though additions have made it several times larger today. In those days the most exclusive hotel in America, with the possible exception of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, was the Hotel Blackstone in Chicago. It was commonly reported that guests were not admitted into the main dining room of the Blackstone in the evening unless they were in full evening dress; and that the noted diva Mary Garden, coming in after an evening performance at the Blackstone theater, was refused admittance because she was not in formal attire.
Also, in those days, the Adolphus maintained, as nearly as possible in a city not much over 100,000 population, as Dallas then was, the atmosphere of the Blackstone.
The main dining room was plush and ornate, serviced with a maître d’hôtel and two or three head waiters, besides waiters and busboys. Most everybody was home for Thanksgiving dinner, and the hotel dining room was almost empty. The maître d’hôtel ushered me to a table and spent the entire time of the meal chatting with me.
“I’m a long way from home on Thanksgiving,” I said, “and on a reasonably generous expense account. I wish you would order my dinner for me. This is once I’m not going to keep down the cost. Go ahead. Shoot the works. Order the finest dinner you can serve.”
He did, and I have never forgotten that Thanksgiving dinner a thousand miles away from home. In these days of jet aircraft, that would not seem far, but it did then.
A Strange New ‘Coke’
Sunday was spent at Waxahachie. Directly across from the hotel was the largest drugstore in any town of 5,000 in America. (Waxahachie is listed at more than 12,000 population in the 1965 atlas. But it was around 5,000 in 1914.) Waxahachie also had the largest cotton ginning center in America, as I recall. But this drugstore interested me.
Sunday afternoon I walked over to the drugstore soda fountain and ordered a “coke.” After the attendant squirted into the glass the Coca-Cola syrup and then the soda water, he took the mixing spoon and dipped the edge of it into a saucer containing a few drops of some liquid which looked like milk, shook it off the spoon, then stirred the spoon into the Coca-Cola.
“What kind of strange new ‘coke’ do you call that?” I asked. “What was that you dipped the spoon into and then shook off?”
“Milk,” answered the attendant.
“Why,” I inquired, “what’s the idea? You shook the milk all off the spoon. You didn’t mix enough into the ‘coke’ to even notice it. What’s that supposed to do?”
I was really puzzled.
“Well,” grinned the soda fountain attendant, “that’s the only way I can serve it to you, according to law.”
I was more puzzled now than ever.
“You see,” he explained, “it’s against the law to serve Coca-Cola on Sundays—but it’s perfectly legal for us to serve food. Milk is food. That tiny portion of a drop of milk I stirred into it made it food.”
I had heard of a lot of ridiculous Sunday “blue laws,” but that one really took the prize. However, Texas or the municipality of Waxahachie must have gotten “fed up” with it and abolished that law long since.
I Saw General Funston
I continued in the search of interesting and usable ideas in retail stores and checking community and general social conditions in Waco, Temple, Austin, Houston and Galveston, Texas. It was quite an event to catch my first glimpse of an ocean at Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico. I went in swimming on the beach, so I could say I had been in the ocean.
Also I was quite impressed with the Hotel Galvez. General Funston, at that time General Pershing’s boss, was there, and I rode up the hotel elevator with him. He was short, not tall, but wore a short goatee beard, and carried himself with very dignified military bearing. However, the dignified military bearing was a little lacking that night, as he was being helped from the bar up the elevator to his suite.
From Galveston I proceeded on through Beaumont and Lake Charles, Louisiana.
The Crucial Letter
At Lake Charles, I received a letter from Mr. Boreman. It was very critical. By this time he had taken over a large part, or all, of the editorial duties from Mr. Vardemann. Mr. Boreman’s letter threw me into consternation.
He was not pleased with my work. I was going to have to step on it—get on my toes—produce more and better material.
I was really frightened. I saw visions of being fired. That was a disgrace I felt I could never take. But Mr. Boreman had not directed me to take the next train home. Apparently I was to be allowed to wind up this trip, at least.
Nevertheless, from that time on, I brooded over the thought of “having a can tied to me” upon return to Des Moines. The vision built up in my mind. I did really “step on it,” from that moment. I hustled harder than ever before. I feared being suddenly called in and fired.
Actually, I learned afterward—too late—that Mr. Boreman had not the slightest intention of discharging me. I had apparently gotten into a temporary slump, and he wrote me a rather sharp letter in an effort to help me snap out of it. But all through the remainder of this trip the fear of being fired built up in my mind.
Nevertheless I kept on working with increased zeal.
From Lake Charles I continued on through Lafayette and Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Louisiana. I remember picking up quite a story of how an aggressive dry goods merchant in Baton Rouge beat the big city competition of New Orleans and held his trade at home. This was my second visit to New Orleans.
Too Conceited? Yes!—But
Perhaps I was entirely too proud in those days. Actually there is no “perhaps” about it. I was! Later I was forced to suffer for years to have this vanity and conceit crushed out before I could ever have been fully prepared for the responsibilities of today.
But I was young then. And I have often wondered if it is not really better for a young upstart to be conceited, self-confident, cocky—and with it, ambitious, energetic in trying to accomplish something, than to be an ambitionless, spineless, lazy, shiftless fellow utterly lacking in spark, drive and the zeal to try to accomplish something worthwhile.
Such ambitious fellows, of course, may not have right goals—they may not know the real purpose of life, or the true way of life, and they may be energetically pressing on only toward more vanity and “a striving after wind,” as Solomon puts it. But at least they are mentally alive and not dead! And once circumstances do shake them and bring them to themselves, and humble them and open their minds to the true values, they are already in the habit of exerting enough energy so that, turned at last in the right direction, something is really accomplished.
At least one reader of this autobiography—and so far as I know, only one—has written very disapprovingly of it, condemning me for having been vain and conceited in those early formative years. I have stated all the facts about that overabundance of self-assurance. Indeed I have put emphasis on it.
This, then, is one of the things I had to be changed from! This is a candid and true life story, and the bad is being told along with what good there may have been. But, if there was ego and cocky conceit, there also was ambition, determination, fire, drive and honest and sincere effort toward what then seemed to be a right goal.
When the Unseen Hand mentioned in the introductory chapter took a hand, shook me up, knocked me down, took away what financial success I appeared headed toward, beat out the proud conceit, and punctured the inflated ego, my eyes were opened to what they had not seen before. The goal was changed. The self-confidence was replaced with faith. But the fired-up desire now flamed forth in the new direction. The sincere drive and energy now was applied with increased zeal to the new and far better goal.
And if faith and confidence and positive assurance in what God has set out to do through a poor human instrument has been by some critics misapplied as vain conceit, then I offer no apology—but the dynamic and ever-expanding Work of the living God cannot stop just to please the whim of critics who stand on the sidelines, themselves doing nothing except to carp and complain and criticize. My zeal and dynamic drive toward a wrong goal did not exceed that of Saul of Tarsus. But when his eyes were opened, look what a power he was!
Jesus was perfect in every respect, yet He had His critics who always thought He was doing everything the wrong way. Yet, like the critics of His Work today, they did not do better—they simply didn’t do, period! They sat on the sidelines and watched the procession empowered by the Spirit of God speed by, on to the true goal of accomplishing God’s purpose here below!
So I have deemed it proper that the full truth about that self-conceit of those formative years be brought out. But let me emphasize, it was not deceit. It was honest and sincere.
Challenged Into a Survey
The “Idea Man” tour continued on through Hattiesburg and Meridian, Mississippi, then Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. What route was taken from Birmingham north I do not now remember. It seems that the next stop was Decatur, Alabama. I think I must have made stops at Columbus and Nashville, Tennessee, and Bowling Green, Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky.
In any event, the next distinct recollection is in Richmond, Kentucky. Apparently I backtracked some distance south to arrive there. I had heard from traveling men along the way that Richmond was the “deadest” town in all America, and I thought there might be a worthwhile story in finding the reasons for this.
I do distinctly remember getting into a discussion with a furniture merchant in Richmond. I might better have said a heated argument. For I had instantly formed the impression that Richmond was then the most backward, lifeless town of around 5,000 population I had ever visited.
I hope that the bombshell I exploded before the merchants of that town had something to do with waking it up—for apparently the town did come to life, since I noticed in the latest census it is now over 12,000 population.
In any event, I was so utterly disgusted with the lack of civic pride and development, and the lackadaisical inertia of the merchants after interviewing several of them, that I must have expressed my disappointment to this furniture merchant. He argued heatedly that Richmond was a very live town.
“Is that so!” I came back. “Do you realize that probably more than half of the trade of the consumers in your town and immediate trade territory is going to the mail order houses and to the stores in Cincinnati and Lexington?”
“Why, we don’t lose any trade to outside competition,” he yelled.
I shot back. “That shows how sound asleep you are! Why, you don’t know what’s going on right under your nose here in your own town. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do! I’m going to show you that an outsider can come into your town and learn more of the real facts of merchandising conditions here in three days than you’ve learned in a lifetime!”
I was good and mad! I was determined to show this sleepy storekeeper, whom I felt unworthy to be dignified with the name “merchant,” just how ignorant he was of conditions, of just how dead the businessmen of this town were.
The prod was on! I was only supposed to spend one day in Richmond. I knew I had to work fast. I had to account for my time at the office. This was not routine “Idea Man” work. I was doing this on my own. So I had to hurry. I was fired up! I was determined to get the facts!
I had no pattern to go by. To my knowledge no survey—no sampling of public opinion—or investigation from a representative portion of the people, according to the law of averages, had ever been made. I had to think my own way through. But I was so angered that I did a lot of fast thinking—and planning.
The Pioneer Survey
Early each of the three mornings I went to the freight house and the express office. I knew well the big Chicago mail order house methods of shipment. The tags did not contain the mail order house names. Only the street addresses. But I knew well the Homan Avenue address of Sears Roebuck and the street address of Montgomery Ward. Also the smaller mail order houses. Rapidly I jotted down notes of the names and addresses of all local citizens receiving merchandise from Chicago mail order houses, listing the description of the merchandise.
As soon as the banks were opened on that first morning, I went to the bankers, told them of the survey I was making, and asked their cooperation in checking through their stubs and giving me the amount of bank drafts that had been purchased for mail order houses during the past 30 days. Also to go through the canceled vouchers of customers, and add up the total, over a given period, of checks that had been sent by local depositors to either mail order houses or stores in Lexington and Cincinnati. All agreed to cooperate fully.
Next I went to the postmaster. I asked if he would cooperate to let the merchants know conditions by checking back 30 days through the stubs of money orders purchased for mail order houses or big city stores. There was a postal regulation allowing the postmaster to use his own judgment about giving out such information, and this postmaster was willing to cooperate.
Then, while they were tabulating this information, I devoted the three days to house-to-house and farm-to-farm interviews. For this latter purpose I hired a “rig,” for there were very few automobiles in service as yet in 1915, especially in towns of this size. So I drove with horse and buggy 10 miles out in two or three directions from town.
I learned that the farmers west of town were so indignant at Richmond merchants that they were actually organizing to boycott these stores altogether. Housewives in town were eager to talk to an investigator. They vehemently poured forth their scathing denunciations of their local merchants.
The women universally said they were forced to go either to Cincinnati or Lexington to buy clothes. The stores there sent their expert buyers to New York seasonally to select the latest styles. But the styles at local Richmond stores were completely out of date, and of poor design, quality and workmanship.
The main street, downtown, was not paved, and often shoppers were forced to walk through mud ankle-deep in crossing the main intersection.
The merchants and their clerks were sleepy, unaccommodating, uncheerful, and seemed to feel they were imposed upon to wait on a customer. If merchandise was unsatisfactory and returned, the customer was always wrong, and the merchant always wroth.
I went to the ticket agent at the depot.
“These so-called merchants of ours,” he said, “have no idea at all of what goes on. In order to go to Lexington—or to Cincinnati—the women shoppers have to take an early morning train leaving at 5 a.m. Lexington shoppers have to change trains at Winchester. Whether they go to Lexington or to Cincinnati, they have a whole day for shopping, and the return train doesn’t arrive until long after stores close in the evening. So local merchants are never up early enough to see them go, or late enough to see them return. But we have a train load every shopping day.”
My First Public Speech
After working furiously daytimes on this quick survey, I typed rapidly of evenings, writing up reports of every interview. On the third day I collected all the data from the banks, post office and express office. Then I carefully tabulated all the information, reduced the equations, by the law of averages, to indicate the whole picture of the conditions of the town—and the results were truly astounding!
Among all these drowsy storekeepers, I had found one live and alert merchant—the local Rexall druggist. Consequently I had kept him informed as to what I was uncovering in Richmond. He was intensely concerned, and urged me to stay over in Richmond one more day, so he could have opportunity to arrange a dinner for the following evening and get all the merchants to attend and hear my report.
I felt I could not remain another day in Richmond. I was already three days behind schedule. I did not, at that time, realize that this survey would be of any use or value as editorial material in the magazine. The fear that I was slated to be fired on return to Des Moines had been haunting me. Actually I wrote up this complete report of the survey for the express purpose of explaining this three-day loss of time—and I actually felt I would be reproved for it and, now more surely than ever, fired.
But this druggist was very persistent.
“Mr. Armstrong,” he argued, “you simply do not have any right to come into our town, unearth all these sensational facts, and then slip on out and refuse to share this information with our local merchants. Why, this is what we’ve all been needing for years. It will wake this town up.”
When he put it as a moral duty, and an obligation, I could not refuse. I think I must have had some kind of illusions about sacrificing my job, however, to fulfill this obligation. However, it gave me this fourth day to complete the typing of my report on the survey, together with all tabulations and final recommendations.
So on this fourth evening here was a dinner arranged by this Rexall druggist. How he ever managed to induce all those merchants to attend I did not know, but apparently all were present.
This was probably the first public speech I ever made in my life. But I was so filled with sensational facts that I forgot to be self-conscious or embarrassed.
I remember making the recommendation that, since no local ready-to-wear department was large enough to hire an expert woman buyer and send her to New York on buying trips, they all go together and cooperate, employing one buyer for all of them; and that on her return from New York at each buying season, they have her give public lectures in their various stores, giving the women advance information on what would be the styles for the coming season.
Possibly some of these suggestions of mine, based on the survey, had something to do with the fact that Richmond today is a growing town more than twice as large as it was then.
My First Magazine Article
It was some weeks later that I received the shock of my life. I received a copy of the latest issue of the Journal in the mail. I had heard nothing from Mr. Boreman or anyone at the office in regard to the long report I had sent in about the survey. At least, no news had been good news. They had not fired me for it—yet!
But now, some weeks later, I opened the latest copy of the Journal, and there, in big headlines as the leading article, I was told of the most sensational article the Journal had ever published.
They played it up big!
And, for the first time—under my own byline!
The accompanying editor’s note explained that they were publishing this astonishing report verbatim, just as their “Idea Man” had written it.
Also, it seems now that in this same issue was another smaller article under my byline. For the past several weeks, I had begun to write up my material in article form. Always before, however, the editors at the Journal office had done a complete rewrite job on my material. But now, my own articles began to appear.