Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Welcome Wagon Building's Spinning Globe

Posted By on Tue, Nov 23, 2010 at 12:56 PM

WelcomeWagonBall1-King66.jpg
Years ago, I wrote about the Welcome Wagon company, which had been founded in Memphis by a fellow named Thomas Briggs (below). He built a stunning, four-story building (also below) overlooking Court Square, and several newspaper articles mentioned that Briggs planned to mount a giant neon globe on top of his headquarters. I expressed some doubts that this globe was ever installed, because I've seen lots of pictures of downtown, and had never seen such a thing.

Well, I was looking in the wrong places. Because in the front of a 1966 Kingsbury High School yearbook is a nice color shot of downtown (shown here and below), and right in front is the globe! Wow. What a fantastic thing to put on a building here — it reminds me of the globe they had on the "Daily Planet" building in all the Superman comics.

The question now, of course, is: WHAT HAPPENED TO IT? Does anybody know?

The story of Thomas Briggs and Welcome Wagon is a pretty interesting one, and since I've got some time here before I take my usual two-hour lunch, followed by my two-hour nap, I'll sum it up for you.

Years ago, you see, when you moved to a new city, a Welcome Wagon hostess would appear on your doorstep, bestowing nice gifts and free samples from the merchants of your city. It may seem a strange concept today, especially as people barricade themselves behind security doors, call blocking, caller ID, and other devices that would stump the most aggressive Welcome Wagon employee, but it was a huge success at the time, and it made Thomas Briggs into one of the wealthiest men in Memphis.

I uncovered some Welcome Wagon newsletters in the Lauderdale Library that told the story of Briggs' rise to fame. "From the earliest days of his childhood he exhibited tremendous energy, the love of people, and the original thinking that were to mark his career." The very words that have been said about me, time after time! Well, except for the second part.

Briggs grew up on a farm near present-day Vollintine and University and attended the old Market Street School downtown. After stints as a magician, hypnotist, and tailor (that's quite a varied resume, wouldn't you say?) he established the Thomas Briggs Company, which specialized in newspaper advertising. In his spare time, he published two books, The Mid-South and Its Builders and Distinguished Folks. The Lauderdales are, of course, prominently featured in both volumes.

Somewhere along the way, Briggs overheard a colleague bemoaning the fate of a friend who had been transferred to a strange new city, and it was a "Eureka" moment for him. Briggs decided then and there to start a company that would make newcomers feel welcome in their new hometown. In 1928, Welcome Wagon was born in Memphis, and the franchise soon spread to every major city in North America.

"In the inception of Welcome Wagon," the newsletter said, "Briggs envisioned the natural role of women as hostesses." And though the notion seems quaint today, as a result the company became one of the biggest employers of women in America.

A fellow businessmen told him, "You have the most remarkable business. Every year you give away $10 million in gifts, and you get paid for doing it." And paid very well, apparently. He not only owned the four-story headquarters building at Second and Court, but he purchased office buildings in New York and San Francisco, piloted an 80-foot yacht that he docked in Ft. Lauderdale, and towards the end of his life, was building a house in Chickasaw Gardens that the Memphis Press-Scimitar called "one of Memphis' most outstanding homes."

Unfortunately, Briggs died in 1964, before he ever got the chance to live in it. A newspaper editorial noted that "he influenced the world, for good" and his generosity continued even after his death. His lengthy will listed more than 70 beneficiaries, including many longtime Welcome Wagon employees, and he left Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College, of course) 34 acres of his family's old farm on Vollintine. The college sold the property and used the money to build its Thomas Briggs Student Center.

Welcome Wagon remained headquartered in Memphis, and continued to grow. In the early 1960s, newspapers announced plans for the company to add a spinning globe to the building downtown: "As it slowly revolves, WELCOME WAGON will flash a ribbon of light around its center, and spotlights will play upon it as it twirls in the Memphis skies." This is the globe whose existence I had questioned — until now.

Sometime in the early 1900s, the company left Memphis and relocated to New York, where it merged with a similar venture called Getting To Know You. The old Welcome Wagon building is still standing downtown, but without that magnificent globe. If anyone knows where it possibly went, or its location today, please let me know.

Memphis in 1966. Note globe at lower right.
  • Memphis in 1966. Note globe at lower right.

Welcome Wagon Headquarters
  • Welcome Wagon Headquarters

Thomas Briggs
  • Thomas Briggs

BLACK & WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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