A Better Mousetrap

In a nation of inventors it has always been the single most invented thing. At this very moment hundreds of Americans are busy obeying Emerson’s famous dictum—even though the machine he exhorted them to build has existed in near-transcendental perfection for almost a century.

IT IS RALPH WALDO EMERSON whom we most commonly accuse of having coined the saying: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” But in his Journal , 1855, we find this entry on “common fame”: “I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must.Read more »

The, Actors’ Revolt

HISTORY’S MOST PHOTOGENIC LABOR dispute lasted thirty days, spread to eight cities, closed thirty-seven plays, and finally won performers some respect

 

1919. The first full year of peace after the World War was a restless one. It saw the advent of Prohibition and the Black Sox scandal. The Communist Labor party of America was founded, while the Socialist party leader Eugene Debs went to jail. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Read more »

The Chicken Story

A CENTURY AGO you’d eat steak and lobster when you couldn’t afford chicken. Today it can cost less than the potatoes you serve with. What happened in the years between was an extraordinary marriage of technology and the market.

King Henri IV of France was a great king. He was also, perhaps, the world’s first real politician—for in the course of his ten-year battle to secure the French throne for the Bourbon dynasty he began deliberately enlisting public opinion and even invented the political slogan to help him do so. Instinctively knowing the shortest route to his people’s hearts, he told them, “I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he is unable to have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.” Read more »

American Taxation

HOW A NATION BORN OUT OF A TAX REVOLT has—and especially hasn’t—solved the problems of taxing its citizens

 

JEAN BAPTISTE COEBERT, THE FINANCIAL GENIUS WHO kept Louis XIVs famously expensive government afloat, once said, “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.”

 
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Agents Of Change

You’ve probably never heard of them, but these ten people changed your life. Each of them is a big reason why your world today is so different from anyone’s world in 1954

For want of nails, kingdoms are won and lost. We all know that. The shoe slips, the horse stumbles, the army dissolves in retreat. But who designed the nails? Who hammered the nails? Who invented the nail-making machinery? Who figured out how to market the nails in neat plastic blister packs hung from standardized wire racks in hardware stores? • The house of history, that clever balloon frame of statistics and biographies in which we shelter our sense of tradition, of progress, of values gained and lost, is nailed together with anonymity.Read more »

Palaces Of The People

Americans invented the grand hotel in the 183Os and during the next century brought it to a zenith of democratic luxury that makes a visit to the surviving examples the most agreeable of historic pilgrimages

At the turn of the eighteenth century, a story went around Connecticut about a pious old woman who was berating her nephew for being such a rake. And an aging rake, at that. “But we’re not so very different,” he insisted. “Suppose that in traveling, you came to an inn where all the beds were full except two, and in one of those was a man and in the other was a woman. Which would you take? The woman’s, to be sure. Well, madam, so would I—” Read more »

Credit Card America

How we became a nation of instant, constant borrowers

In 1987 Robert Townsend charged $100,000 on his fifteen personal credit cards to finance the production of a major motion picture, Hollywood Shuffle. It was a big risk, a desperate gamble that the movie would be successful and pay off the bills. It worked. Most Americans go through life making credit-card gambles these days, though on a much smaller scale, charging their clothes, furnishings, vacations, toys, and more in the hope that they’ll have the time and ultimately the money to pay it off.Read more »

Detroit Iron

A tribute to the brash confections our car makers offered the world during a decade when not one American in a thousand had even heard the name Toyota

America swaggered off the World War II battlefields like a heavyweight champion who had just scored a first-round knockout. Our losses were tragic—292,000 dead—but they were a relative bloody nose compared with the slashings and renderings of millions upon millions of other people caught up in the carnage. Moreover, our civilian population had been spared the terror bombings, occupations, and huge displacements so commonplace elsewhere.Read more »

The Day Wall Street Turned Into Orchard Street

As long as there have been bankers and brokers, there have been people asking what would happen if they had to earn an honest living

On October 26, 1911, the old Life magazine published a cartoon entitled “When We All Get Wise.” The implication of the cartoon, of course, was that if the ordinary people of the country would “just say no,” this time to bankers, brokers, and capitalists, Wall Street would collapse, and all those people would have to go out and start earning an honest living for a change. John D. Rockefeller would have to give golf lessons to get by. Swift and Armour would be back to selling meat at retail (buying it from whom? one wonders).Read more »