“Think persistently into great principles. That many have persisted for thousands of years simply because their truth is unassailable, applies to all of us in all situations and problems.” – James Cash Penney
Most Americans are well acquainted with the JCPenney department stores offering everything from fine jewelry to home décor. Despite his miraculous career, few know the story of the store’s namesake, James Cash Penney, a savvy businessman, passionate Freemason, and gracious philanthropist.
Indeed, Brother Penney, who was a deeply spiritual man and a member of the craft for many decades, represented the best of American fraternalism. When he assumed control of his first store, it was called The Golden Rule, an apt name for a business run by a man committed to doing right by those around him. From humble origins, he established one of the largest chains of department stores in the United States that today operates in hundreds of locations across the country.
James Cash Penney Jr. was born on September 16, 1875, on a farm near Caldwell County, Missouri. His parents, James Cash and Mary Frances Penney, had 12 children, although, sadly, just six lived to see adulthood. The elder James was a Baptist minister and farmer who was strict in his approach to raising and disciplining his family. Sources say that as young James approached his eighth birthday, his father determined it was time for the boy to begin paying for his own clothing.
James was an industrious boy with an impressive, thoughtful mind. When he graduated from high school, he was eager to have a career in law. However, his father passed away unexpectedly around the time of his graduation, and the responsibility for his family fell to James Jr. His plans to pursue a college education were dashed. Instead, he took a job as a general store clerk, where he earned a salary of $2.27 per month.
While working at the general store, Penney suffered from tuberculosis. His doctor recommended a better climate to help improve the young man’s health. In 1897, he moved to Colorado, where he secured a job working for dry-goods merchants Guy Johnson and T.M. Callahan at one of their Golden Rule stores.
The Golden Rule
The two partners were steadily expanding their businesses across the west, and in 1899, Callahan sent Penney to Evanston, Wyoming, to assist them with opening a new Golden Rule store. He was recently married to his wife, Bertha Alva, with whom he would have two children, Roswell Kemper Penney and James Cash Penney III.
Together they went to Evanston, and by 1902, Penney’s performance had thoroughly impressed Callahan and Johnson. They made him a one-third partner upon opening their store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Penney invested $500 to start and, after five years, bought out his partners’ shares so he could build the company under his own vision. The Kemmerer store today is referred to as the J.C.Penney “mother store” and is still operational.
In 1909, Penney was entirely in charge, and he turned his eyes to Salt Lake City, Utah. He understood that as the railroads expanded across the west, communities of workers followed. By establishing headquarters in Salt Lake City, the business would be closer to financial institutions and the railroads. Sadly, in 1910, Bertha passed away, leaving James with their two children. He kept working hard for his young, small family, and within three short years, he expanded dramatically. By 1912, he had 34 stores spread across the western states. The following year, he rebranded the business as “J.C. Penney.”
Rapid Growth and Decline
Not long after moving to Utah, Penney became a Freemason, something he would cherish for the remainder of his life. He was first initiated into Wasatch Lodge No. 1 Free and Accepted Masons of Utah on April 18, 1911. He always wore his large Masonic ring to proudly display his membership in the fraternity he cherished.
With new store locations opening like clockwork, the J.C. Penney company was soon ready to expand east of the Mississippi River. By 1924 he was bringing in over $1 million in his personal income annually, an extraordinary amount for the time. From 1916 to 1929, the Penney company grew tremendously, reaching 1400 store locations and total revenue of $190 million (equivalent to $3 billion in 2023). Ever the Freemason at heart, Brother Penney immediately began using his immense fortune to pursue philanthropic causes.
He also offered generous compensation to his growing staff. Every manager of a new store was offered a profit-sharing plan, and after the company went public in 1927, he granted managers stock in the company, a benefit that was eventually extended to all employees.
Throughout the 1920s, James diversified his business endeavors, including investing in Florida real estate. He owned over 100,000 acres of land in Clay County, which he used portions of to create Penney Farms and Foremost Dairy Products Inc. And then, as happened with countless others, the stock market crash of 1929 devastated Penney’s businesses and personal fortune.
With the Great Depression burdening the country, Penney saw his years of hard work undone. Nearly all his wealth evaporated, and he was forced to borrow against his life insurance policies to ensure his company could meet payroll. Unsurprisingly, the mental toll of the setbacks was significant, and he sought help and support at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.
He became a born-again Christian during his time there, and his newfound spirituality would influence his business practices in the subsequent years. For example, Penney required that all stores closed on Sundays so employees could attend church. With a fresh perspective, Penny decided to pass off the day-to-day duties of running the company but remained actively involved as chairman of the board.
A notable anecdote occurred in 1940 when James visited one of his Des Moines, Iowa stores. The chairman encountered a newly hired employee, Sam Walton, the future founder of Walmart, and taught him how to wrap packages properly. Moving into more of a figurehead role in the company, James was chairman of the board until 1946 before moving into an honorary chairman position.
For the last 25 years of his life, James Penney continued to visit offices and stores across the country, acting in his capacity as the honorary chairman. Although he was no longer responsible for the company, he enjoyed being involved in the corporate community.
Penney lived in New York City on Park Avenue, splitting his time between there and his winter home in Palm Springs. Well into his 90s, he passed away on February 12, 1971. The company closed all stores on the morning of his funeral to honor his passing. Later that same year, the JCPenney company reported revenues reaching $5 billion (equivalent to $33.5 billion in 2023) for the first time.
Philanthropy and Other Works
As mentioned above, Penney had a charitable spirit and was an active philanthropist as soon as he was wealthy enough. His notable accomplishments beyond the world of business include the following:
- Helping to found the University of Miami and served on its Board of Trustees from 1926 to 1930.
- In the wake of the Great Depression, Penney worked with IBM’s founder Thomas J. Watson, celebrity Arthur Godfrey, and the minister and motivational speaker Norman Vincent Peale to form the first board of 40Plus, an organization that helps unemployed managers and executives.
- In 1954, he founded the James C. Penney Foundation. Although it is no longer affiliated with J. C. Penney Co., Inc., or its corporate giving program, it remains part of the Common Counsel Foundation in Oakland, California.
- The Penney Family Fund today endows organizations in the states of Oregon, California, and Washington that work to advance human rights, community social, political, and economic empowerment, government accountability, and environmental sustainability.
Legacy and Commemorations
Penney was a Freemason most of his adult life and was actively involved in both the Scottish and York Rites. Additionally, he used his many years as a businessman and millionaire to help communities across the country. Below is a partial list of notable commendations he earned for his contributions to Freemasonry and beyond:
- Penney was coronated a 33rd Degree on October 16, 1945,
- In 1958, he received the Gold Distinguished Service Award by the General Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons, in Kansas City, Missouri.
- Penney was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho for agriculture and Alpha Kappa Psi for business.
- The J. C. Penney Conference Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis was dedicated in his honor in 1972.
- To honor his father, Penney founded a retirement community in 1926 in Northeast Florida for retired ministers.
- In 1953 the Springfield, Missouri, Chamber of Commerce presented Penney with an “Ozark Hillbilly Medallion” and a certificate proclaiming him a “hillbilly of the Ozarks.”
- Mr. Penney was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1976.
- The J. C. Penney Historic District in Kemmerer, Wyoming, “mother store,” was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1978.
- In 1994, Penney was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians. A bust depicting him is on permanent display in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
- James Cash Penney was inducted into the 4-H Hall of Fame in 2002.
- Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Missouri, was renamed Penney High School.