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Treasure boxes: Keeping valuables secure

Wells Fargo’s iconic treasure boxes were one of the first ways the company kept its customers’ valuables secure.
A rectangular wood box with a leather strap handle on left and Wells Fargo & Co on the front. Years of use have stripped away the green paint, but some is still visible on front panel.
Featured photo caption: Master carpenter J.Y. Ayer built Wells Fargo’s sturdy treasure boxes out of pine and oak. Each measured 20 x 12 x 10 inches. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives. Photo by Rob Prideaux.

In Wells Fargo’s first six decades in business, it provided two very important services to customers: banking and express. Express service meant shipping customers’ valuables using the fastest, most reliable means available. From 1852 to 1918, Wells Fargo shipped gold, silver, money, valuable goods, and important documents all over the world on steamships, trains, and stagecoaches. Until 1895, Wells Fargo also carried mail by letter express, and in the 1860s and 1870s often delivered more mail than the U.S. Postal Service in Western states and territories.

On stagecoaches and railroad cars, valuable express items sometimes traveled in iron safes, or more frequently, Wells Fargo’s signature wooden treasure boxes, which rode on a stagecoach beneath the driver’s feet. Wells Fargo’s agents on the route could add or remove express items for local business owners and customers. Each outgoing item was secured in the box and the item recorded and tracked on a paper waybill.

A rectangular wood box has the lid closed and Wells Fargo lettering on the front.
An oak-rimmed lid and iron straps and corners enhanced durability. Leather handles made it easier to lift the 24-pound box into the front boot of the stage, where treasure rode beneath the driver’s feet. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives. Photo by Rob Prideaux.

Wells Fargo’s green treasure boxes also held important news delivered by letter and protected customers’ property deeds, payments, and business contracts. Even photos and other family keepsakes and special gifts traveled in safety. Over time, the iconic Wells Fargo treasure box became a symbol of the company’s determination to deliver for customers.

The interior of a wood railroad car shows three men standing and one sitting in chair with a small black dog on his lap. In the foreground are various trunks and locked boxes labeled Wells Fargo & Co.
Inside this railroad express car, a Wells Fargo messenger guarded both a wood treasure box and an iron safe. Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Portland, Oregon.

Creating the treasure boxes

Maine-born master carpenter Joseph Y. Ayer began handcrafting Wells Fargo treasure boxes in his San Francisco shop in 1862, choosing heavy pine and oak for the boxes, and adding iron to reinforce the lid, sides, and corners. A heavy iron hasp closure allowed the box to be secured with an iron lock. After adding the signature forest green paint and “Wells Fargo & Co” lettering in white on the front of the box, Ayer added his own maker’s mark inside reading, “J.Y. Ayer 3740 Seventeenth Street, S.F. Cal.”

A black and white portrait of bearded man in suit. He is looking off to the side.
Portrait of Joseph Y. Ayer. Photo Credit: Public domain.
A black and white photo of a two-story Victorian home. On the porch are two men and one woman. In background are a water tank, windmill, and small building with sign reading J.Y. Ayer Carpenter & Builder.
The Ayer family home and carpentry shop, located on Seventeenth Street in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Public domain.

From his carpenter shop in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, Ayer also produced sturdy, large wooden trunks. These packing trunks held small packages shipped in railroad express cars. Wells Fargo’s messengers rode onboard, watching over the locked trunks and making sure that goods were delivered as promised. The trunks secured and consolidated small package shipments, and if additional goods were loaded, made it easier to move one full trunk than piles of parcels and packages. Packing trunks were 5 feet long and 3 feet high and deep, and built to withstand heavy use on long distance runs.

A black and white photo of building front shows five men in work clothes and stacks of wood boxes. A little girl sits on top of one stack of boxes. The older, bearded man at right is J.Y. Ayer.
Joseph Y. Ayer stands at right, while his son Joseph S. Ayer and granddaughter are at left. Photo Credit: Public domain.

Ayer and his carpenter crews also repaired boxes, trunks, and other company equipment. His son, Joseph S. Ayer, assisted his father in running the family business. The elder Ayer, who also served as the Wells Fargo’s superintendent of office equipment, also outfitted interior furnishings of the company’s new offices throughout the Pacific Coast and Mexico, including new buildings in Sacramento, California, and Los Angeles in the 1890s.

A black and white photo of two-story workshop building. Several men stand outside surrounded by wood boxes. One man stands in open loft door above. The sign on top of the building reads J.Y. Ayer Carpenter &Builder.
Ayer and his carpenters take a break from their work — a pile of treasure boxes in need of repair. Photo Credit: Public domain.

Ayer’s shops narrowly missed being destroyed in the firestorm that burned into San Francisco’s Mission District following the great earthquake of 1906. Ayer died the following year, just as his skills were in greatest need for rebuilding of the city. A number of his treasure boxes survived, including one on display at our Wells Fargo museum. Wells Fargo’s iconic treasure boxes are a tangible reminder of the multi-generational span of Wells Fargo’s history and its long legacy of security.

Four Wells Fargo wagons fill the street outside of a carpentry workshop building. Three are loaded with a dozen large wood trunks each. Workmen lower a trunk by rope onto a fourth wagon. Workers and wagon drivers stand on and around the wagons.
Newly completed packing trunks are loaded onto Wells Fargo express wagons and ready to be placed into service. Photo Credit: Public domain.
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