Things sure have changed since John Cash Penney opened a dry goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming 90 years ago. Back in 1902, America was a country of small towns, Kemmerer being one of them with a population of 900. Penney, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, figured they could support a dry goods store. His first day sales came to $466.59, an astonishing amount considering the most expensive item in the store was a $9.95 suit. More typical were the 35-cent overalls and 49-cent ladies shoes.
J.C. Penney Co. Notifies the Public of a New Store Opening in Johnson City, 1929
Penney's strategy was to set a fair price and stick firmly to it. That appealed to most residents who were accustomed to haggling with local merchants and who generally pressed for the highest price possible. Within five years, Penney had acquired three more stores and had moved his original dry goods store to a larger building.
Through the years, Penney was one of the first to apply new strategies to running department stores. In the early days, cash was kept in a muffin tin under the counter, but later Mr. Penney would adopt the Lamson Basket Method (baskets running on a wire and pulley system) and the intriguing looking Pneumatic Tube System, both of which whisked away customers' cash by overhead wires or vacuum tubes. It was worth a trip to the stores just to observe new technology at work.
In 1923, when JC Penney Company was 21 years old, it opened its first store in Johnson City at 319-21 E. Main Street (opposite the Johnson City Buick Company). This was its 475th store. You could buy a man's silk shirt for $4.88 and ladies new spring frocks – flat crepe in alluring colors, lively prints and staple shades – georgette in lovely models, scarf's, jackets, tiers and bows added interest at $14.75.
Children's shoes cost $2.49, girls dresses ranged from $.98 to $2.49, and a boy's suit went for $8.90. That year, men's waistband overalls, now called jeans, were $2.49. Women's cotton dresses went for $2.00 and dress shoes at $8.90.
The year 1929 brought about the need for a bigger store in Johnson City. Two buildings were purchased at 240-42 E. Main Street (opposite the Rialto Cafe). Some of us recall that location being occupied by Lorraine Shops and Booze Bros. Inc. Shoes. A bold clipping in the Johnson City Chronicle said, “J.C. Penney Co. To Move Into New Home Soon. New Building Modernly Equipped, To Be Occupied. Opening This Week.”
“The Burrow building, a two-story brick facility, has been entirely remodeled, two buildings have been combined with a new interior and plate glass front, and modern store fixtures and equipment provided.
“New and additional equipment has been secured by Penney for the new location, and a considerable larger stock will be displayed, complete stocks of clothing and accessories, for men, women and children and for the home as a complete department store in the most modern sense.
“Penney will move early this week and fuller announcements will be made as to opening dates and special features of interest to the public during the formal opening in their new home.”
Mr. J.C. Penny as He Looked in His Younger Days (public domain)
The next Penney move occurred 19 years later in 1948 when the store moved to the impressive, modernistic building at 307-13 E. Main St, (opposite Charles Stores Co.). J.C. Penney stayed downtown until 1980 when the Main Street store closed and the company reopened in the Johnson City Mall.
Though Mr. Penney was instrumental in bringing his ever-growing chain stores into the modern age, he is also known for his staunch opposition to increasing popular in-house credit. Early department stores were strictly cash only, mainly because it kept prices lower. Later, credit became necessary to be competitive and Penneys reluctantly complied.
James Cash Penney died Feb. 12, 1971, and was buried in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Since he opened his first store in 1902, the chain peaked at 2053 stores in 1973.