Made in Missouri: James Cash Penney is Born

“I would never have amounted to anything were it not for adversity,” J.C. Penney once said. “I was forced to come up the hard way.” From being born on a poor farm in Missouri to creating a company that today brings in sales in excess of $19 billion, Penney indeed managed to overcome the odds. Today, the J.C. Penney Company has become an international success for its sales of clothing, jewelry, shoes, accessories, and home furnishings. However, that was the result of a long and uphill struggle for the young entrepreneur.

Born on September 16, 1875 on a small farm in Caldwell County, near Hamilton, Missouri, James Cash Penney Jr. was the seventh of twelve children born to James Cash Penney and Mary Frances Paxton. His father was a Baptist minister and a farmer whose yields were modest. In fact, the family was so poor that only half of Penney’s siblings would survive into their adulthood. Impoverished as they were, the Penney family was rich in religious values. James and Mary raised all of their children to believe in God, self-reliance, and the Golden Rule.

The young J.C. Penney spent his childhood both going to school and doing farm work. At eight years old, his parents told him he was finally in charge of buying and paying for his own clothes. Money was scarce, but his father wanted him to understand the value of it. Penney began running errands, collecting and selling junk, and raising and selling livestock. By the time he was ten years old, Penney had raised so many pigs that neighbours began to complain about the smell. Penney was forced to sell the pigs, but made sixty dollars profit in the process.

In 1893, Penney graduated from Hamilton High School. Although he dreamed of becoming a lawyer, he continued to help out on the family farm. Six weeks before his father died, he helped Penney get a job as a store clerk at a local dry goods store run by a family friend. The day before Penney Sr. died, he said, “Jim will make it. I like the way he has started out.” By the time he was 20 years old, Penney was ranked third in overall sales at the store.

Following four years with the store, Penney decided it was time to move on. After being diagnosed as susceptible to tuberculosis, he took his doctor’s advice and moved to the drier climate of Denver, Colorado. Here, he began working again as a store clerk at another dry goods store. Just one year later, Penney decided to go into business for himself. Using all of his savings, he opened up a butcher shop on Main Street and began receiving a significant amount of business from the nearby hotel. But, Penney’s success with the butcher shop would be short-lived. After he refused to give special favours to his powerful customer, Penney’s business quickly went under.

Penney was devastated from the blow. In the end, however, the failure of Penney’s first business would prove to be a blessing in disguise.

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