Chain store executive, pioneer in profit sharing, and philanthropist, J (ames) C (ash) Penney (1875-1971) built a corporate empire following business precepts based on the Golden Rule.
The seventh of 12 children, only six of whom grew to maturity, J. C. Penney was born on September 16, 1875, on his father’s farm near Hamilton, Missouri. His father, the Reverend James Cash Penney, Sr., served as an unpaid preacher for a fundamentalist sect known as Primitive Baptists and farmed to earn a living. His mother, Mary Frances Paxton Penney, was a Kentuckian. Life was joyless and difficult for the family, and at the age of eight young Penney was told that he had to buy his own clothes.
This was not primarily because of necessity, but rather to teach him the value of money and self-reliance. To earn money he purchased a pig, fattened it, and sold it for a profit, then bought others. Later his father ordered him to sell his pigs before they were ready for a top price because they were objectionable to the neighbors, so he turned to growing and selling watermelons.
Penney graduated from Hamilton High School in 1893 but did not have the money for higher education. With the aid of his father he secured a position as a clerk in a local dry goods and clothing store. Starting on February 4, 1895, he was paid $25 a month. Never athletic or physically robust, a little more than two years after he started working his health began to fail. On the advice of his physician he left in 1897 for Colorado to regain his health. He worked briefly at two stores and then bought a butcher shop but went bankrupt rather than donate whiskey to the cook of a local hotel in order to obtain business.