Launching a New Business
I SHALL never forget my first view of the Rocky Mountains from a distance. While I had traveled the Alleghenies and the Blue Mountains in the east, I had never seen any really high mountains. I had always wondered what they would look like. They seemed very lofty and awe-inspiring to me.
We drove several miles out of our way in order to dip down into the state of Colorado, before we entered Wyoming. We wanted to be able to say we had been in that state. At Cheyenne we drove up hill to the north end of town to the largest camp we had seen.
But by this time all my hand-made wooden folding cots had broken down, and the canvas tops had split down the middle. We threw them away. From Cheyenne on, we slept on the ground.
In the higher altitudes the nights became so cold we were forced to spread the bed covers on the ground inside the tent, making one long bed. All six of us lined up side by side in that one bed on the ground, to keep each other warm.
At Evanston, Wyoming, the car broke down. We were detained there 1½ days while it was fixed in a garage.
During our journey across Wyoming, Dorothy's arm was bitten by a spider. It swelled up, and she was taken to a doctor. It must have been about this time that we had to telegraph my father to wire us additional funds. We had run out of food, gasoline, and money. Dorothy's arm had to be soaked in hot Epsom-salts water, and held high continually. Mrs. Armstrong, Bertha, and I had to take turns, on one day's driving, holding that arm, lest it hang down.
We stopped off one full day in Salt Lake City. Walter and I played some tennis on public courts near the camping grounds -- we were carrying our tennis rackets with us. We took the guided tour around the Mormon grounds and through the Tabernacle.
Premonition of Danger
At Weiser, Idaho, we visited a day and a half with the families of two of my wife's uncles, Benjamin and Walter Talboy. Walter later held a high government position in Idaho, and once ran for governor.
Leaving Weiser in the late afternoon, we were winding around the "figure eight" sharp curves of the highway following the course of the Snake River. Suddenly, my wife cried out:
"I'm afraid to go further! For the past hour I've been having a terrible premonition of danger! I can't explain it -- but I just can't keep it to myself any longer."
"That's strange," exclaimed Walter. "I didn't want to say anything -- but I've been fighting off the same feeling."
That was enough for all of us. It seemed foolish, in a way. Yet we were afraid to go on. We turned back toward Weiser.
"I'm simply too nervous to drive any further," explained Walt. I took over the wheel. Just before entering Weiser, on a short down-hill slope, I made the horrifying discovery that our brakes had gone out! There were no brakes. There was no reverse! I drove the car into a garage. We were kept one more night at the Talboy relatives in Weiser. Had we not heeded those premonitions, we might have been killed crashing down steep mountain grades around sharp curves without brakes. Later we learned that at the precise hour my wife and Walter had been having their premonitions, my mother in Salem, Oregon, was also disturbed by a terrible premonition concerning our safety. It had grown so strong on her she was forced to remove her hands from the dishwater, and go to a bedroom to pray for our safety! I do not try to explain this. I am merely recording what actually happened!
At Last -- We Arrive
Finally, July 3, we made our last homestretch lap from Pendleton, Oregon. That was a long day's drive in a Model T. But that night, after dark, we arrived at my father's home in Salem, Oregon, on the eve of July 4.
We had been 18 days on the way. It was fast traveling compared to the covered wagon days. Yet, today you can travel from New York to Los Angeles -- coast to coast -- in 4½ hours, by scheduled passenger JET plane! Allowing for the time difference, if I leave New York at 5 in the evening, after a full day of business conferences with radio stations and our overseas advertising agents, I can arrive in Los Angeles about 6:30 the same evening!
Few people realize the rapid pace at which this world is traveling today -- toward its own DESTRUCTION! It is time we slow down to realize HOW FAR this machine age -- atomic age -- space age has plummeted us in these few short years since 1924!
My Father Had Grown Up!
I had not seen my father, my youngest brother Dwight, or my sister Mary, for twelve years! Dwight and his twin sister Mary had been eight years old when they moved to the west. Now they were twenty.
But the biggest change of all was in my father. In 1912, when I was only twenty, I had felt rather sorry for my father. At that time I knew so much more than he! But I was simply amazed at how much my father had learned in those 12 years. It seems most young men know more than Dad, but they grow out of it later. I could see, now, that he knew more than I! Now I had to look up to my father with respect!
He had a nice home which he had planned and built. It was paid for. He didn't owe any man a cent. He had a comfortable salary as a heating engineer. When we found ourselves out of money on the way out -- buying extra tires and such things -- he had immediately wired me $200.
How many young men, getting to "know it all" from age 16 to 20, have to wait until in their middle thirties to learn how much they ought to respect their fathers! And my father was a GOOD man. He never smoked. He never drank, never used profanity. He never took advantage of another man! I honor and respect his memory. He died in April, 1933, in his 70th year.
After a few weeks' visit with my folks, we drove to Portland to visit my wife's "Uncle Dick" Talboy, an attorney. Our elder son, Richard David, was named after him. He was an Oregon pioneer, having migrated from Iowa first in 1905. He attended Stanford University in California in 1906 and 1907. He returned to Des Moines to finish his law course at Drake University in 1907, returning to Oregon in 1913. It has been his home ever since.
The very next day Mr. Talboy had to transact some legal business at the courthouse in Vancouver, Washington -- just across the interstate bridge from Portland. He invited me to go along. I had not yet been in the state of Washington, and was anxious to add one more state to my list.
Just as we emerged from the bridge, in Vancouver, I saw the plant of the local daily newspaper, The Columbian.
I asked if I might not hop out right there and contact the newspaper regarding a survey while Mr. Talboy went on to the Court House.
The owner and editor was on a vacation at Seaside, but the Business Manager, Samuel T. Hopkins -- who was later to become a business partner of mine -- was in. Enthusiastic over the survey idea, he felt sure Mr. Herbert Campbell, the owner, would be interested on his return. I said I would call back the following week. We were welcome to remain and visit at the home of my wife's uncle. The following week, I found Mr. Campbell as interested in the survey idea as Mr. Hopkins.
"I have only one objection," he said. "I believe it is going to take a man of your specialized merchandising and advertising experience to follow it up and make it pay. We have no such man here. Now what I want to know is, can a newspaper of our size afford to employ a man of your experience and ability permanently?"
Here was a ludicrous paradox.
Here I was, down and out financially, my clothes now threadbare. And here was a newspaper publisher asking if he could afford to employ me! Yet I had had a training and specialized experience such as comes to few men. I had taken a severe beating by the Chicago debacle, but I still had the cocky and confident manner. I spoke with a tone of knowing what I was talking about. Evidently this impressed Mr. Campbell sufficiently that did not notice my rather run-down appearance.
The answer came like a flash.
"No, you cannot!" I said positively.
This was a challenge. Herbert Campbell was cocky, "Well, I think we CAN! How much is it going to cost us?"
I had to think fast. Was I going to turn down a survey, because I felt too important to take a permanent job on a small city newspaper? I made a quick compromise proposition.
"Tell you what I'll do," I shot back. "I'll put on the survey for a flat fee of $500. That will take a week or ten days. Then I will stay on your staff as a merchandising specialist for six months only, at a salary of $100 per week. Take it or leave it!"
"O.K. I'll take it," he snapped. I had my wife's uncle draw up a legal contract, which he signed a day or so later.
I rented a house in Vancouver, and started on the survey.
Pulling a Clothier Out of the Red
About the time we started on the survey in Vancouver, Walter and Bertha Dillon, my wife's brother and sister started in the Model T their return trip to Iowa; Walter to enter his Junior year at Simpson College, and Bertha for another year of school teaching.
This time Mrs. Armstrong took part in the survey, and proved very adept at eliciting confidential information from housewives of their attitudes and feelings toward Vancouver stores.
The survey soon was completed, together with a complete typed summary of all data, interviews, and tabulations of statistics, as well as an analysis of conditions and recommendations.
With this data, I began counselling with merchants about individual merchandising problems.
One clothing store, for example, was running in the red. The owner asked if I could help him. I insisted on full access to his books and all information. Finally he consented.
The survey had uncovered special facts about customer attitude toward this store. One line this store carried was Hart Schaffner & Marx clothes. I knew that this firm was prepared to extend considerable dealer-help. At my request they sent a qualified representative to counsel with me and this merchant.
A new policy was inaugurated. Certain changes were made. Until now this store had not carried the more snappy styles young men liked. The owner, past middle age, had bought the older men's styles of his personal liking. I induced him to trust the Hart Schaffner & Marx representative fully with selections in ordering.
Also I recommended that he stock in addition snappiest young men's styles in a less expensive line.
Then we began a big-space advertising campaign in the Columbian. I wrote and laid out all his ads. I induced him to spend 7% of sales in this advertising campaign.
"But," he protested, "You have shown me that Harvard Bureau of Business Research figures show that no retail clothing store ought to spend more than 4% for advertising."
"That's right," I explained, "but this big-space advertising will quickly build up your volume. The amount, in dollars, spent in advertising will remain the same. But, as sales volume increases, the advertising expenditure will become an increasingly smaller percentage of sales." Also I explained to him it might take six months before his total expenditures would go below his total income, and his books would get out of the red.
It took a lot of courage. But it was a matter of accept my program or go bankrupt. He finally agreed.
It did take about six months. Twice before that time he lost his nerve and wanted to quit. Twice more I talked him into staying with it. At the end of six months his business was showing a profit. The sales continued to increase. So did his merchandising turnover. And likewise his profits. Finally he was able to sell his store at a substantial profit.
Discovering a New Business Potential
Soon I became virtually advertising manager for a leading hardware store, the largest department-drug store, a furniture store, a jewelry store, a dry-goods store, and others.
But my most important client turned out to be the local laundry. The general survey had brought out some startling facts about the laundry situation. I wanted more facts. So a further separate survey was made to get the facts and more definitely learn customer-attitude toward laundries.
I found that very few housewives entrusted their family wash to the laundry. We unearthed many suspicions. Many women assured me that laundries use harsh acids and chemicals which ruin clothes. This, I soon found, was not true.
"They shrink clothes," said scores and scores of women.
"They fade colored things," women assured me.
"How do you know?" both Mrs. Armstrong and I began asking women we interviewed. "Has the laundry ruined your things -- have your colored clothes been faded or your woolens shrunk?"
"Oh mercy, No!" they would reply. "Why, I would never think of sending my things to the laundry."
"Then how do you know the laundry mistreats things in this manner?" we would ask.
"Oh, I just know! Why, everybody knows how terrible laundries are on clothes," would come the confident answer.
Scores of women said laundries would lose things and refuse to make good the losses. "The laundries will never make an adjustment or settle a claim," women assured us.
We found dozens of things wrong with the laundries -- in the public mind.
Then I investigated conditions at the Vancouver Laundry, owned by a man of my name, J. J. C. Armstrong, no relation. Actually, I found that conditions were precisely the opposite of the general public conception.
The laundry washed clothes with a neutral chip soap -- I think that particular laundry used Palmolive, a gentle facial soap. To add alkaline strength, without injury to clothes, they used an expensive soap builder -- a controlled alkali, which could not harm a baby's tenderest skin, could not injure sheerest silks or finest table linens, and yet possessed the strength to get greasiest overalls spotlessly clean. This harmless but effective soap builder was not available to consumers on the retail market. It was sold only in barrel quantities direct to laundries. It was the result of then recent and specialized scientific research, manufactured by one of the largest corporations in the laundry industry, a subsidiary of the Aluminum Corporation of America (ALCOA).
Through Mr. J. J. C. Armstrong I met a laundry chemist, Robert H. Hughes, a special technical representative of this company, the Cowles Detergent Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Hughes explained to me the chemistry of laundering -- why we use SOAP to wash our hands, faces, or clothes.
How Soap Cleans
It's a very fascinating story. Did you ever wonder what causes particles of dirt to cling to clothes -- why clothes become soiled? Did you ever wonder how SOAP removes dirt?
I don't believe the truth will bore you. Briefly, this is the story:
Naturally, dirt would fall off clothes instead of attaching itself to cloth, were it nor for the fact that an acid, or oil or grease, even in slightest amount, is present. This acid holds the dirt to the cloth. Laundries did not use acids, as so many people seemed to believe. There is acid already present on the clothes, else they would not become soiled.
Chemically, matter is either acid, alkali or neutral. These are chemical opposites.
Soap is made from two substances -- fatty acid (oil or fat), and alkali. But alkali, if used alone, would injure and rot cloth. So in the soap factory the two substances, fatty acid and alkali, are mixed by a process called saponification. This converts the two into a new substance, which is neither acid nor alkali, but which we call SOAP.
If the soap be completely pure -- a prominent soap used for faces and even babies is advertised as 99 and 44/100% pure -- there is no free alkali in it. All the alkali has combined with the oil, tallow, or fat, and has been converted into soap. The alkaline content is now utterly harmless. Yet it has an alkaline action that will dissolve the acid that glues dirt to your skin or your clothes, so that the dirt is flushed off in the rinsing.
But a pure facial soap is not sufficiently alkaline to loosen the acid on badly soiled clothes. Therefore soap makers at the time of this story put a certain excess amount of alkali in the laundry soaps sold in stores to housewives. This excess alkali was called free alkali. It was not controlled, or neutralized, in the soap. Alkali is chemically a crystalline substance. In other words, it dilutes into and becomes part of the water. In clothes-washing, it soaks into the fiber meshes of the garment. Rinsing cannot remove it -- it merely dilutes it. The soap and the dirt are flushed away in the rinsing -- but the free alkali remains inside the fiber of the cloth. In the drying process it tends to eat or rot the cloth. It would even destroy shoe leather!
Now WHY does not a pure soap injure the cloth?
The answer is that, chemically, soap is a colloidal substance. In solution, or emulsion, it breaks up into thousands of tiny particles. But it does not become part of the water. Its thousands of minute particles discolor the water, float around in the water. In the agitation or rubbing of clothes-washing, the tiny soap particles are flushed in between the fiber meshes of the garment or cloth, but never soak into the fibers. They dissolve the acid, thus loosening the dirt. The agitation breaks up the dirt into tiny particles, loosened from the cloth. The tiny colloidal soap particles have a chemical affinity for the tiny dirt particles, which means the dirt particles cling to the soap particles. The rinsing flushes them away. Even if all the soap were not rinsed off, the alkali is not free but controlled by the soap, and could not eat or rot or harm the cloth.
This scientific soap builder sold by the Cowles Detergent Company contained great alkaline strength, but it was chemically in colloidal form, not crystalline, and the alkali was as completely controlled as in a 100% pure soap. Therefore it could not harm silks, woolens, or the sheerest, daintiest fabrics, although, it had the strength to wash clean the greasiest overalls. Also it restored colors, brought them out newer and sharper than before.
Since those days, however, there has been a complete revolution in the manufacture of clothes-washing detergents sold to housewives. Whether our big-space advertising of the dangers of the free-alkali laundry soaps to clothes then sold for home washing machines had bearing on it, I do not know.
But the chemists on the staffs of leading soap and detergent manufacturers have developed new synthetic detergents. Few housewives, if any, use soap in their home washing machines today. The first household synthetic detergent on the market was Dreft, produced by Proctor & Gamble, in 1933. Colgate came out with Vel later in the 30's. Since, there have been many developments in the field of synthetic detergents. They are not yet perfect or foolproof, but chemists have not yet exhausted the possibilities of improvement.
Our campaigns were in the early days of the home washing machine. These home washers were crude, compared to today's product. In our ads, and in special booklets, we "figured it out" and convinced many housewives it was less costly to send the family wash to the laundry.
A New Business Launched
I began to write big-space ads for this laundry. Armed with complete information of customer attitude and complete factual and scientific information about laundry processes, I was able to assure housewives that their sheerest, daintiest fabrics were actually SAFER at the laundry than in their own hands at home.
Soon these ads became an item of conversation among Vancouver women. It took time to dispel suspicions and build confidence. But gradually the laundry business began to increase.
Before this campaign, laundry business had consisted mainly of men's shirts, and hotel business. But now the family bundle business gradually began coming to the laundry.
I found that the laundry industry was twelfth in size among American industries -- yet, in aggressive methods, and advertising and merchandising, it was the least "alive," and the most backward and undeveloped. I sensed, here, a tremendous field for a new advertising business.
I began to develop plans for a personalized, yet syndicated advertising service for leading laundries -- one client in each city.
I learned that not all laundries were using as advanced methods as this Vancouver Laundry. Some laundries were still using as a soap builder plain caustic soda -- free alkali. Some lacked efficiency methods of operation. Many were guilty of haggling with customers over claims of losses or injury, and of refusing to make losses good.
I had become closely acquainted with R. H. Hughes and his reputation among laundry owners as the leading laundry chemist and expert on production methods on the West Coast.
So, Mr. Hughes and I formed a partnership. As soon as my six months' tenure with the Vancouver Columbian expired, we set out to establish a new business as a merchandising and advertising service for leading laundries.
I moved my family to Portland.
I would start off every campaign with a local merchandising survey, to determine the local customer attitude. We would accept no client unless the laundry owner would give Mr. Hughes complete latitude and authority within his plant, to install the latest scientific methods and equipment, eliminate lost motion, and speed up efficiency.
I had to be able to make big claims in the advertising. The client had to be able to deliver what the ads promised. The client had to agree to settle every claim without a question -- the customer was ALWAYS to be right in any complaint.
And Then ... BANG!
The general appeal of the ads was syndicated -- the same for all laundries. Yet certain factors peculiar to each local laundry were altered to comply with that particular client's conditions. We ran two large-space ads each week for each client.
The new business started with great promise. Soon we had as clients leading laundries in Eugene, Corvallis, Albany, Salem, McMinnville, Oregon City, and Portland, Oregon; and in Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Ellensburg, Walla Walla, Olympia, Centralia, Chehalis, and Vancouver, Washington.
In six months the business volume of some of these laundries doubled. Our advertising and merchandising service was winning big results for clients.
No matter how many clients we should acquire, I had only one general advertising IDEA to think up and write for the entire number. The new business promised to grow to be a national, universally used service.
This would mean, in another two or three years, an income larger than I had ever before contemplated. Already our fees were grossing close to $1,000 a month. They appeared to promise to rise between $50,000 and $100,000 per month within two or three more years. I began to see visions of a personal net income of $300,000 to a half million dollars a year!
And then -- the bottom fell out!
And through no fault or cause of our making. There was one unusual condition peculiar to the laundry industry. They were highly organized in their Laundryowners National Association.
Some bright advertising man, in an advertising agency in Indianapolis, Indiana, put over on the Laundryowners National Association a $5,000,000 advertising campaign for the entire industry -- the entire amount to be spent by this agency in the big-circulation national women's magazines, such as Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Good Housekeeping, etc. The campaign was to run three or more years. The Association was to pay for it by assessing each laundry-owner member within ½ of 1% of the maximum percent of sales volume a laundry could safely spend in advertising.
Every one of our customers was taxed by this campaign up to the limit they could safely spend. They had no alternative except to cancel out all their own private local advertising. Our field was literally swept out from under our feet.
In Chicago I had built a publishers' representative business that brought me an income equivalent to well more than $50,000 a year or more before I was thirty. The flash depression of 1920 had swept away all my major clients, and with them my business.
Now, with a new business of much greater promise, all my clients were suddenly removed from possibility of access, through powers and forces entirely outside of my control.
It seemed, indeed, as if some INVISIBLE and MYSTERIOUS HAND were causing the earth to simply swallow up whatever business I started.
Reduced to Going Hungry
Soon every laundry client had been forced to drop all local advertising except one. I still had the account of one of the two largest laundries in Portland, running one ad a week in the Portland Oregonian. This supplied an income of $50 per month.
But $50 per month was not enough to pay house rent, and provide food and clothing for our family. We began to buy beans and such food as would provide maximum bulk and nourishment on minimum cost.
One time, a couple days before my monthly $50 check was due, we were behind in our rent, completely out of groceries except for some macaroni -- we did not even have a grain of salt in the house; our gas and electricity had been shut off. We had a small heating stove in the living room, and nothing but old magazines for fuel.
My morale was fast descending to subbasement. I was not so cocky or self-confident now. It seemed almost as if I was being "softened" for a knock-out blow of some kind.
Religious Controversy Enters
Some little time prior to this, we had been visiting my parents in Salem. My wife had become acquainted with an elderly neighbor lady, Mrs. Ora Runcorn. Mrs. Runcorn was an avid student of the Bible.
Before our marriage my wife had been quite interested in Bible study. She had been for years an active Methodist.
After marriage, although she had not lost her interest in the Christian life and the Bible, she had not had the same opportunity to express it, or participate in religious fellowship with others. While we lived in Maywood, suburb of Chicago, we had joined the River Forest Methodist Church. The fellowship there had been more social than spiritual or Biblical.
But all Mrs. Armstrong's active interest in things Biblical was reawakened when she became acquainted with Mrs. Runcorn. One day Mrs. Runcorn gave her a Bible study. She asked my wife to turn to a certain passage and read it. Then a second, then a third, and so on for about an hour. Mrs. Runcorn made no comment -- gave no explanation or argument -- just asked my wife to read aloud a series of Biblical passages.
"Why!" exclaimed Mrs. Armstrong in amazement, "do all these Scriptures say that I've been keeping the wrong day as the Sabbath all my life?"
"Well, do they?" asked Mrs. Runcorn. "Don't ask me whether you have been wrong -- you shouldn't believe what any person tells you, but only what GOD tells you through the Bible. What does He tell you, there? What do you see there with your own eyes?"
"Why, it's as plain as anything could be!" exclaimed Mrs. Armstrong. "Why, this is a wonderful discovery. I must rush back to tell my husband the good news. I know he'll be overjoyed!"
A minute or so later, Mrs. Armstrong came running into my parents' home, with the "good news."
My jaw dropped!
This was the worst news I had ever heard! My wife gone into religious fanaticism!
"Have you gone CRAZY?" I asked, incredulously.
"Of course not! I was never more sure of anything in my life," responded my wife with enthusiasm.
Indeed, I wondered if she really had lost her mind! Deciding to "keep Saturday for Sunday!" Why, that seemed like rank FANATICISM! And my wife had always had such a sound mind! There was nothing shallow about her. She had always had a well-balanced mind, with depth.
But now, suddenly -- THIS! It seemed incredible -- preposterous!
"Loma," I said sternly, "this is simply too ridiculous to believe! I am certainly not going to tolerate any such religious fanaticism in our family! You'll have to give that up right here and now!"
But she wouldn't!
"Doesn't the Bible say that wives must be obedient to their husbands?" I asked.
"Yes, in the Lord, but not contrary to the Lord," she came back.
It was amazing how many logical arguments came to my mind. But always she had the answer.
I felt I could not tolerate such humiliation. What would my friends say? What would former business acquaintances think? Nothing had ever hit me where it hurt so much -- right smack in the heart of all my pride and vanity and conceit! And this mortifying blow had to fall immediately on top of confidence-crushing financial reverses!
In desperation, I said: "Loma, you can't tell me that all these churches have been wrong all these hundreds of years! Why, aren't these all CHRIST'S churches?"
"Then," came back Mrs. Armstrong, "why do they all disagree on so many doctrines? Why does each one teach differently than the others?"
"But," I still contended, "Isn't the Bible the very source of the teaching of all these Christian churches? And they do all agree on observing Sunday! I'm sure the Bible says, 'Thou shalt keep SUNDAY!' "
"Well, does it?" smiled my wife, handing me a Bible. "Show it to me, if it does -- and I'll do what it says."
"I don't know where to find it. You know I'm no Bible student, I could never understand the Bible. But I know the Bible must command the observance of Sunday, because all the churches observe Sunday, except the Seventh-Day Adventists, and they're regarded as fanatics. The Sabbath was the day for the Jews."
I even threatened divorce, if my wife refused to give up this fanaticism, though in my heart I didn't really mean it. In our family divorce was a thing unheard of -- and beside, I was very much in love with my wife -- though at the moment I was boiling over with anger.
"If you can prove by the Bible that Christians are commanded to observe Sunday, then of course I'll do what I see in the Bible!"
This was her challenge.
"O.K.," I answered, "I'll make you this proposition: I don't know much about the Bible -- I just never could seem to understand it. But I do have an analytical mind. I've become experienced in research into business problems, getting the facts and analyzing them. Now I'll make a complete and thorough study of this question in the Bible. All these churches can't be wrong. I'll prove to you in the Bible that you are mistaken!"
This was in the autumn of 1926. My business was gone -- all but the one laundry account in Portland, where we were living at the time. This one advertising account required only about 30 minutes a week of my time. I had TIME on my hands for this challenge.
And so it was that in the fall of 1926 -- crushed in spirit from business reverses not of my making -- humiliated by what I regarded as wifely religious fanaticism, that I entered into an in-depth study of the Bible for the first time in my life.