The Story of American Business: A book review by Bob Morris

The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times
Nancy F. Koehn, Editor
Harvard Business Press (2009)

The Who, What, When, How, and Why of U.S. Free Enterprise

Credit Nancy Koehn with skillfully selecting, organizing, and then editing a wealth of material that originally appeared in The New York Times from May 11, 1869 (“East and West,” an account by an unnamed correspondent of the celebration at Promontory Point when the railway first connected New York and California) until September 28, 2008 (“The Richest Man and How He Grew That Way,” Janet Maslin’s review of Alice Schroeder’s biography of Warren Buffett). The material is carefully organized according to three major themes: the corporation, American business and the changing nature of work, and the defining moments in technology. As Koehn suggests, “Taken together, these aspects provide us a kind of wide-angle lens on some – though by no means all – of the most important individuals and events that shaped American business history and that, in turn, did so much to give form to our own time and our possibilities in it.”

I especially appreciate the timelines that are inserted strategically throughout the narrative. They help to create a frame-of-reference for the profiles, as well as analyses of trends and significant events, briefings on historical periods, book reviews, end-of-year summary evaluations, and speeches such as the one delivered by Theodore Roosevelt in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on August 21, 1907, during which he shares his thoughts about the politics of his administration with regard to trusts. He also praises Puritan ancestors who “tamed the wilderness, and built up a free government on the stump-dotted clearings, amidst the primeval forest.” The variety of subjects correctly suggests the scope and depth of what Koehn refers to as “the most important individuals and events that shaped American business history and that, in turn, did so much to give form to our own time and our possibilities in it.”

Most readers will check out the Contents and then select articles of special interest to them. Others may prefer to proceed through one section to the next. Whatever the approach, the reading experience shares much in common with a situation in which a person begins to clear out an attic, cellar, garage or storage area and finds several boxes filled with clippings of articles from The New York Times. Some are about the rise of big business, the emergence of Wall Street, “merger mania,” major business leaders; other articles examine the changing nature of work such as the movement from farm to country and the emergence of labor unions; still others examine the “transportation revolution” (i.e. impact of railroads, the automobile, and commercial flight) and communication breakthroughs such as radio, television, and the Internet. There are at least some photographs a paradigm shift such as one of a Northern Pacific locomotive in 1900 and another in which Henry Ford sits in his car next to a horse and buggy in 1933. However, the bulk of the material consists of narrative text.

The specific entries that caught my eye include (listed in the order in which they appear in the book): “Uncle Sam Now Business World’s Business Man” (November 19, 1882), “Ladies as Stock Speculators” (February 3, 1880), “J.P. Morgan At Seventy, Believes in Keeping At It” (April 14, 1907), “Roosevelt Won’t Drop Trust War” (August 21, 1907), “The Peril Behind the Takeover Boom” (December 29, 1985), “Millionaires of Pittsburg – Twenty Years Ago and Now” (June 2, 1907), “Talking Business with Grove of Intel” (December 23, 1980), “`Neutron Jack’ Exits” (September 9, 2001), “Penned in Factories and No Fire Escapes” (October 12, 1911), he New Boss” (January 30, 2005), “The Wonders of Electricity” (April 4, 1998), “How We Spend Our Time” (April 24, 1937), “Honey, I am Not Home” (May 11, 1997), “Southwest Manages to Keep Its Balance” (September 25, 2001), “Television Effects on Families Shown” (February 5, 1950), and “Mapping Out the Wireless Phone’s Future”( November 12, 1992).

I have included the dates of these entries because many of those who are curious about this book share my interest in articles that reveal what the interests, concerns, issues, etc. were at a given time. Much of what happened a 100 years ago today provided at least some of the “news fit to print” that day so it has an historical significance. In some instances, the same account also suggests a specific stage of development or an emerging trend…or both…as in “Women Who Work Increase in Numbers and Influence” written by R.L. Duffus that appeared in the September 14, 1930, issue and “New Southerner: The Middle-Class Negro” co-authored by Wilma Dykeman an James Stokely that appeared in the August 9, 1959, issue.


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