Managerial Babble

A letter written by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1818 is my second-favorite business letter. Vanderbilt was then twenty-four, and he wrote to his employer, Thomas Gibbons, the owner of a ferry that ran between New Brunswick and New York City, about a competitor named Letson. Vanderbilt at that time captained the ferryboat Bellona, and his wife, Sophia, added to the family’s income by running a popular riverside hotel, Bellona Hall, in New Brunswick. Read more »

Past Masters

Israel Sack made a fortune by seeing early the craft in fine old American furniture

To a casual passerby on East Fifty-seventh Street in Midtown Manhattan, No. 15 looks like any other small, wellkept building. On the main floor is an antique-silver shop. Above it on the third and fourth floors are windows with blinds pulled shut behind them, and across each window in gilt Gothic lettering there appears simply a name, Israel Sack, Inc. Although behind those upper-story windows is the oldest and most prestigious dealer in American antiques, nothing gives that information away. The name on the building is enough.Read more »

American Gold

Solid-gold coins were legal tender for most of the nation's history. In their brilliant surfaces we can see our past fortunes.

NOWADAYS MONEY SEEMS to have become a pure idea, a universally agreed-upon fiction conveyed by pieces of paper, plastic cards, computers, and coins made of nearly worthless metal. But until just fifty-one years ago, money meant solid gold, that precious, rare, beautiful, glamorous, and nearly indestructible element which had stood throughout history as the invulnerable guarantee of financial security.Read more »

When Should We Retire?

Twentieth-century answers to that question have much less to do with the health and happiness of the retiree than we have been led to believe

IN 1978 A FEDERAL statute made it illegal for most employers to impose mandatory retirement on workers under seventy. The new law was widely touted as yet another triumph of twentieth-century enlightenment. For, after all, was not compulsory retirement a relic of an era when the abilities of the elderly were not fully appreciated? Read more »

The Artist Of The Center

J ohn Wenrich’s original drawings of Rockefeller Center helped attract tenants in the middle of the Depression. Fifty years later they survive as talismans of a golden moment in American architecture .

When John D. Rockefeller, Jr., announced his intention to build a great urban complex in December 1929, the project was meant to be “as beautiful as possible,” but it also had to be a solid business proposition. Ultimately the Center was both, but not without a long process of negotiating, planning, designing, and redesigning—much of it heavily criticized by the press.Read more »

The Great American Motel

You’d never recognize it today. Perhaps this will refresh your memory.

The single-engine plane comes in low over the green hills of Zululand, then bounces to a landing on a grassy strip. The American tourists clamber out into the African sun. The surrounding countryside is dotted with clusters of thatch-roofed huts, and rhinoceros and wildebeest lurk nearby. The comfort and ease of home have been left far behind. And then, a stone’s throw from the strip, they spot a familiar green and yellow sign, topped by a star. It is a Holiday Inn. Read more »

If You’ve Got An Ounce Of Feeling, Hallmark Has A Ton Of Sentiment

How the colossus of the “social expression industry” always manages to say it better than you do

FROM A DISTANCE , it looks like any other factory scene. Women, seated at small tables, hunch over piecework, their hands moving in quick, accustomed ways. Read more »

The Cost Of Living In America, 1800—1980

A Graphic Treatment

The Department of Labor first began publishing a Cost of Living Index in 1919. Since then this measurement of the prices of the goods and services used by ordinary people in their day-to-day lives has been many times modified and refined. During World War II its title was changed to Consumer Price Index. Attempts also have been made to project the index back through the nineteenth century by collecting data from newspapers, business records, and other sources.Read more »

Vegetable People

In the 1870’s American manufacturers were a long step ahead of the American advertising industry. They were producing goods on a nationwide scale, but there was no national publication in which they could hawk their products. The ingenious solution to this problem was the trade card [see “Trade Cards,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , February, 1967]. With a picture on one side and some persuasive copy on the other, these cards were slipped into packages, handed out in retail stores, and mailed to customers.Read more »

American Vernacular

As a nation we spend a disproportionate amount of time destroying the remnants of our immediate past. There are voices enough to protest against the razing of marble and brownstone monuments, but nobody speaks out for the far more vulnerable and transient victims of rezoning and renewal: cafés, small grocery stores, rural banks, shops, warehouses. Dark, lopsided, and shabby, they hang on for a while in the run-down districts on the edge of town and then disintegrate under the bulldozers to make way for the bowling alleys and condominiums.Read more »