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 »

Understanding The S&L Mess

At its roots lie fundamental tensions that have bedeviled American banking since the nation began

Bank failure is as American as apple pie. The first American failure took place in Rhode Island in 1809, when a bank capitalized at forty-five dollars issued eight hundred thousand dollars in bank notes, a sum equal to more than seventeen thousand times the resources behind it. In the 1990s the latest bank failure, alas, almost certainly took place less than a week before you began reading this article, as another savings and loan association was taken over by the government. Read more »

The Power Of Patents

For two hundred years the United States patent system has defined what is an invention and protected, enriched, and befuddled inventors. As a tool of corporate growth in a global economy, it is now more important than ever.

In a decision of far-reaching significance, a federal circuit court in 1985 ruled that the Eastman Kodak Company had infringed the instant-camera patents held by Polaroid. The court ordered Kodak to cease making and selling its own instant camera, a product on which Kodak had sunk many millions of dollars in an effort to beat out Polaroid and bolster its position as a camera and film manufacturer.Read more »

Saint Straus

He excelled at business and made Macy's highly profitable. But Nathan Straus was even better at giving away his earnings to help people in need.

People who obtain their view of the world only from movies and television know that business-men come in three varieties. They can be crooks (Wall Street), incompetents (Tucker), or both (The Solid Gold Cadillac). Those of us who live in the real world know that businessmen come in the same infinite variety as any other group of human beings. A few are even saints. One of these was named Nathan Straus.

Woolworth’s Cathedral

It wasn’t enough for Woolworth that his monument be grand and useful and beautiful—he wanted it to be profitable too.

Ever since technology began to permit it, men of power have sought immortality in stone. Knowing that their deeds, however important, were ephemeral in the nature of things, they hoped that their tombs and statues and palaces might remind the world of their greatness. Shelley, in his haunting sonnet on Ozymandias, showed the essential barrenness of this idea, but that hasn’t stopped men in the least from erecting monuments to their own memories. Read more »

The Problem of Money and Time

Why do you need so much money to be rich nowadays? It’s a question that historians and readers of history have always found difficult to answer.

L.P. Hartley began his masterly novel The Go-Between with the words “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” No-where is this difference with the past more apparent than in the realm of getting and spending, for like most foreign countries, the past uses a money different from ours, and the historian must somehow translate its value into modern terms. Read more »

I. America’s Junction

All through the 1920s eager young emigrants left the towns and farms of America and headed for New York City. One of them recalls the magnetism of the life that pulled him there.

And still they come.

From west of the Appalachians, from the prairies of the middle border, from the shortgrass country, and from the South, young Americans troop to New York in search of fullfillment—or perhaps to get away from something. Read more »

Day of the Player Piano

It didn’t last long. But we never got over it.

The player piano came of age in America ninety years ago, and it caused an almighty stir. Within four decades it appeared to be dead. The craze dwindled, and in 1932 not a single player was shipped from the factories. But although player pianos have been manufactured only desultorily since, the machine established itself so firmly during its brief lifetime that it is impossible to find someone today who doesn’t know what a player piano is, who doesn’t remember what fun they were.Read more »

Fast Food

It began with a few people trying to get hamburgers from grill to customer quicker and cheaper. Now it’s changed the way Americans live. And whether you like it or hate it, once you get on the road you’ll eat it.

When I was ten, my brother was accepted into a college in Kansas. My parents decided to drive him out from New Jersey, using the opportunity to show both of us the countryside as we went. The year was 1963. Read more »

Harvard’s Capitalist Experiment

The university struggled to define what a school of business should teach. What is the knowledge required for success?

Villains are important, and an institution that supplies us with villains performs an essential service. Take the Harvard Business School. Others may scoff, but I am prepared to believe that the Harvard Business School is responsible for everything that has gone wrong in American life in the past thirty years, from the decline of the automobile industry to the cancellation of “Captain Kangaroo.” Read more »