One year before the Century’s turn a Chicago tea salesman named Frank Vernon Skiff who had saved $700 started a wagon route on his own, peddling dry groceries from door to door. He peddled for two years before he hit on a way of making his business different from any of the other hundreds of mobile stores weaving in and about Chicago.
This store at 643 E. 43rd Street was Jewel’s first permanent location in Chicago, circa 1901
Frank’s idea was to offer his own coffee, which would be roasted every week. He saved up a few hundred dollars, bought a second hand wagon and horse, and a small stock of housewares, including his own fresh coffee, tea, spices and extracts. His first route was down by the Chicago stockyards. A couple years later his brother-in-law Franklin Ross joined him in this venture and they called their new company Jewel Tea, even though coffee was their main product. They chose Jewel because in those days anything of a superior nature was called a jewel. They took turns driving the delivery wagon and soliciting new business.
There were many tea companies at that time, and they all sold door-to-door, giving premium coupons with grocery purchases. When enough coupons had been saved, the customer had a choice of premium items offered. One day Mr. Ross knocked on the kitchen door of a prospective customer and had hardly stated his business when she grabbed a broom. He returned later that same day and learned that the lady had saved coupons for six months buying coffee and tea from a “wagon man” and had expected to get a rug with her coupons. However, the wagon man stopped coming around. Mr. Ross quickly offered her a premium to be left with her first order, to be paid out with a later trade.
This story varies from a broom to hot water, but the fast thinking Mr. Ross with his idea of advancing the premium set the Jewel Tea Company apart from all other existing tea companies of the day.
By the end of 1901 their sales had reached $11,000 and they began their own Jewel brand labels. Their sales grew from $25,000 in 1903 to $250,000 in 1905. In 1909, they built their own plant and a year later they reached $1 million in sales with 400 routes. By 1915, they had 850 routes scattered across a wide area in the midwest and $8 million in sales. World War I with shortage of supplies brought some setbacks but in 1919, Skiff sold his interest in Jewel Tea for $16 million and retired.
Jewel Tea Company Headquarters
426 West Washington Street (1327 West Washington Street after 1909)
Designed by Nimmons & Fellows
The company was incorporated in Illinois in 1903. Early in 1904 expansion began in earnest with many new routes opened outside of the Chicago area. In 1906, The Jewel Tea Company entered the food-manufacturing field, starting with baking powder and two years later, roasting its own coffee.
In 1930, The Jewel Tea Company moved its operations from Chicago to Barrington, Illinois. The company sold household products through salesmen traveling the country until 1981. Jewel Tea supplied housewives with everything from baking powder and other grocery items to cleaning supplies, linens, cookware and china.The Jewel Home Shopping Service was phased out of the Jewel Companies in 1981.
1934 advertisement that lists the 87 Chicagoland stores.
In 1909, Frank Vernon Skiff built a mansion at 633 N. East Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois. The home was designed by “Chicago’s premier designers of industrial buildings,” Nimmons & Fellows, 204 Dearborn Street. The firm had recently designed the new headquarters building at 426 West Washington Street in Chicago for the Jewel Tea Company, owned by their son and son-in-law.
Chicago Sunday Tribune
June 4, 1933
Jewel Tea Company
Home Grocery Order Card