In an era long before TV, and when radio was in its early broadcasts, orders for flour were sent between bakers and Sperry Flour salesmen via one-pound fliers – homing pigeons.
The idea for using pigeon air messengers as a business tool originated with E.M. Van Antwerp back in 1917.
Then a Sperry salesman, Van Antwerp, nicknamed “Van,” was covering the southern part of the Oakland territory, and he needed to be away two or three nights each week. He came up with the idea to send messages home to his family via the pigeon route.
Van Antwerp, who worked from the office located in Santa Cruz, Calif., was raising homing pigeons as a hobby. As he traveled, he released birds from each town, and the little air messengers never failed to arrive at the home loft, much to the delight of Van Antwerp’s wife and children.
Pigeons and flour?
Occasionally, while he was on his route, a dealer requested a rush shipment, so the salesman sent the order via pigeon. When the bird arrived home, the message was then relayed to the Sperry office.
This method worked so well, Van Antwerp decided to build a loft next to his work warehouse. It did, however, take some convincing to finally persuade one of the truck drivers to take a couple of the birds along when delivering flour.
If the customer wanted an additional order, the driver was to attach a message to one of the pigeons and release it for a return flight to the Sperry warehouse.
This arrangement was so successful, that a pigeon loft was established at the Oakland office in the fall of 1917. For some time, the pigeons were used by all of the salesmen in the Oakland division to carry orders and for publicity purposes when being released outside bake shops.
Cartoon from “The Modern Millwheel” employee newsletter, March 1939.
The idea spread its wings
One day when the Sperry president was visiting Santa Cruz, the sound of a resounding gong nearly blasted him over the top of his roll-top desk. It was a returning pigeon making a weary entrance.
Van Antwerp had rigged a spring landing platform at the loft, so the weight of an incoming bird made an electrical contact that set off the clamoring gong.
Van Antwerp would then race to the end of the warehouse and proudly return with news, such as “Schnitzer’s Bakery needs eight sacks of Big Loaf, right away!”
The visiting president was so impressed that he urged Van Antwerp to create more lofts. Soon these pigeon lofts were established at all Sperry locations in California, and salesmen were strapping cages of pigeons to the running boards of their white company cars.
When salesmen called on the leading bakery in a given town, he and the baker assembled a crowd, and to the tumult of cheers, would release a pigeon while the photographer from the local paper added dramatic effect by exploding his flash power.
Pigeon air service innovation remained flat for several years, until 1924, when Stewart P. Elliot, sales promotion manager, realized how much publicity and goodwill could be generated through this channel. He authorized the creation of a pigeon loft at each of the remaining principal offices north of California.
The northwest lofts, located in Portland, Tacoma and Spokane, were particularly successful in securing public relations “opps.”
Among the most colorful was the 1926 stadium dedication at the Washington vs. Oregon football game. As part of the ceremony, Mayor Baker of Portland sent messages via Sperry pigeons to the mayors of various Pacific Coast states.
Colored streamers were tied to the legs of the birds – 10 with Oregon colors and 10 with Washington colors. As the American Legion drum corps released the pigeons, they flew the entire length of the field before circling, resulting in a roar of cheers from the crowd.
Actress and movie producer Norma Talmadge used a Sperry pigeon to announce her latest picture, “The Dove,” in 1928.
By 1929, there were 15 active lofts in the Sperry system, with 300 air messengers in the wings and ready to take flight for the company.
Some of the Sperry pigeons recorded flights as long as 400 miles. Top speeds were as high as 65 miles an hour, depending on weather conditions and length of flights.
The pigeons were credited with contributing an enormous amount of noteworthy publicity through their achievements.
Apart from a few internal publicity events, the Sperry “Air Service” was likely discontinued by 1940 with the increased use of other messaging.
Editor’s note: Founded in 1852, the Sperry Flour Company joined General Mills in 1929. Sperry brands included: Drifted Snow flour, a prominent flour brand on the West Coast; La Bandera; Harina; Gold Seal flour; and La Piña flour. Today, La Piña is still a popular brand in the Southwest, although General Mills sold the La Piña brand when it acquired Pillsbury in 2001.