At the turn of the century, business leaders were giddy with plans to exploit exciting new technologies. Innovative products and processes were changing commerce irrevocably. Monopolies and near-monopolies held sway overimportant segments of the economy. The entire world financial system looked to one man for guidance.
The year was 1900. It was the era of new achievements in transportation, of oil and railroad monopolies, of J.P. Morgan's primacy in financial circles. Or was it 2000, in the era of the Internet revolution, the Microsoft monopoly, and Alan Greenspan as the presiding genius of world finance? Several recently published works of business history show, in different ways,how much has changed about the way the world goes to work and how much remains the same.
John Steele Gordon cements his reputation as America's foremost business historian with The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a WorldPower, 1653-2000. Gordon's last book, Hamilton's Blessing, turned the neat trick of making the national debt a sexy topic ofconversation. Now the author brings to life three and a half centuries of dramaand comedy that have made a few blocks at the lower tip of Manhattan Island themost important and self-important monetary territory on earth.
The Great Game's rich store of anecdotes offers up such indelible images as 50-year-old Cornelius Vanderbilt whipping New York's toughest boxer in a street brawl, General Motors founder William C. Durant ending his days as manager of a bowling alley, and a seat on the New York Stock Exchange selling for only two and a half times the price of a New York City taxicab medallion in the depths of the mid-1970s bear market. Gray flannel suits don't have to equal boredom, and Gordon tells his story in such a brisk and lively fashion that even the most casual reader will find it hard to put down.
An American dynasty
The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker, 1849-1999 is Oxford don Niall Ferguson's sequel to the well-received 1998 book The House of Rothschild: Money's Prophets, 1798-1848 (recently issued in paperback by Penguin Books). Getting a powerful family with a long history of profound financial influence to cooperate in a history while maintaining independence is no easy feat, and Ferguson deserves a great deal of credit for pulling it off. Having gained unprecedented access to archival information about Europe's legendary banking clan, he synthesizes his material with admirable clarity, given that the story line includes central banking crises and other complex financial situations.
A century ago, the British and French wings of the Rothschild family controlled the world's largest bank, a Europe-wide railroad network, worldwide mining interests, and some of the world's most fabulous homes and art collections. The bankers' prominence made them intimates of world leaders such as Winston Churchill and enemies of anti-Semites (from the left to the right of the political spectrum) who vented their envy and hatred at the Jewish conspiracy through which the Rothschilds supposedly wielded secret control over governments and financial systems. The family survived the tumultuous century, only to see its significance in world banking circles diminish as megabanks came to dominate the financial landscape. A tale of decline can be just as compelling as a tale of ascent, and Ferguson proves that point in this book.
The capitalist ideal
In The Capitalist Philosophers: The Geniuses of Modern Business Their Lives, Times, and Ideas, author Andrea Gabor alternately celebrates and cuts down to size the figures who have shaped the American workplace as we know it today in all its vibrant productivity and all its mind-numbing Dilbertitude. From both the best and the worst of the management theorists profiled here, we re-learn the timeless lessonthat ideas have consequences.
Frederick Winslow Taylor had big ideas about reforming the way steel was made in the late 19th century, and some were good ideas. But others displayed a contempt for employees' basic humanity that would influence generations of nightmare bosses in the century to come. American enterprises are still trying to undo Taylor's damage. Then there's Robert McNamara. Whatever the inverse of the Presidential Medal of Freedom might be, McNamara earned it by the damage his misguided approaches caused in not one, but two, major institutions: Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Department of Defense. Can you blame one man for the exploding Ford Pinto and the Vietnam War? Not entirely, but Gabor shows how McNamara's obsession with bean-counting contributed to each of those disasters.
The author carefully analyzes the positive and negative impacts of these and other business thinkers whose big ideas continue to resonate in corporate life. Though much ink has been spilled about individuals like Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, and Herbert Simon, Gabor contributes important insights about the lasting significance of their work.
There is much in the history of American enterprise that nobody remembers fondly, from the Panic of 1873, to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, to the Edsel. But one relic has largely passed from the financial scene without the nostalgia it merits: the stock certificate. Journalist Bob Tamarkin, editor Les Krantz, and collectibles dealer George LaBarre offer this dying art form a gracious send-off in The Art of the Market: Two Centuries of American Business as Seen Through Its Stock Certificates.
It's still possible to get a certificate when you buy shares of stock these days, but there's little reason to bother. It will just be a redundant printout of information that resides on a computer somewhere. In the old days, companies were less efficient, but they had style. This beautiful coffee-table book showcases the elaborately engraved documents, signed in fountain pen ink by the likes of J. Paul Getty and Thomas Edison, that companies once used to project their corporate images to the investing public.
For the American Express Co. in 1854, an illustration of a chugging locomotive took center stage on the certificate; a century or so later, shares of Playboy Enterprises Inc. were engraved with a reclining nude. The purpose of each image was the same: to make the shareholder feel good about thecompany. Today's corporations can accomplish this goal more effectively on theInternet, but you'll never find a book this handsome about the masterful websites of yore.
The Art of the Market is not the only turn-of-the-century commemoration of American business milestones. Other books offering a big-picture (literally) review of commercial history include The New York Times Century of Business by Floyd Norris and Christine Bockelmann ) and 100 Years of Wall Street by Charles R. Geisst. Century of Business is as much a journalistic artifact as a business history; its reprinted Times articles on key business developments from decades past all hold up quite well to the scrutiny of hindsight. 100 Years of Wall Street masterfully tells the Street's story in archival photos and Geisst's very readable text. Look for all three of these appealing picture books in the lobby of a broker near you.
Journalist E. Thomas Wood is an editor with the Champs-Elysees.com family of European language-and-culture products.