1001 Knights – the rarely mentioned men whose names are on the brands we use every day

Pick any product or company name you think of – IBM, Johnson&Johnson, Gillette, Oscar Mayer, Hallmark, Baskin-Robbins, Rolles-Royce – and there is a story behind it, a story of men who founded the company, often more than a century ago:  With entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and a dedication to producing something worthwhile to make a profit they’d be proud of.  Sometimes there was a patented invention behind it, as in the case of the razor blade or the tractor, and sometimes there was simply the commitment to making a product better than had been done before.  We benefit from these products every day, but how often do we think of the story behind them, the men who created them or the effort it took to make a product that could last, not weeks or months, but decades or centuries?

The book Entrepreneurs, The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It, by Joseph and Suzy Fucini, covers 51 such brand names, and the book They Made America by Harold Evans covers many more.  But one can often find the story on one’s own, simply by going to the website of the company (usually in the “Our History” section, or something similar, though sometimes one has to do a little hunting to find it).

A sampling of what can be found if one selects some brands at random and looks at the company website:

  • In 2011 SINGER® celebrated the 160th Anniversary of Isaac Singer’s patent on the first practical sewing machine.
  • In 1883, Barney Kroger invested his life savings of $372 to open a grocery store at 66 Pearl Street in downtown Cincinnati. The son of a merchant, he ran his business with a simple motto: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.”
  • William Procter, emigrating from England, established himself as a candle maker in Cincinnati. James Gamble, an immigrant from Ireland, apprenticed himself as a soap maker [in 1837]…“The Procter & Gamble Company never has gone in circles, never followed footsteps, but rather has continually broken new trails, entered new fields, set new records, even raised its own high standards.” — R. R. Deupree, 1936.

The first point to make about these books and this sampling is that an entrepreneurial history and a lasting product is not limited to a select few individuals.  The sheer number of such men and women documented in these and many other stories is huge.  With the freedom that America afforded in the 19th century, in particular, companies were continually emerging (flooding Americans with new materials, new products, new means of transportation, more food, better housing, and greater sanitation).  More broadly, where the freedom to create exists in any country in the world, today and in the past, men and women form companies and produce products of value. The large number of individuals involved relates to the answer given to argument #5 in the five arguments against free will:  those individuals who succeed are not freaks of nature but simply men who exercised free will and actualized their potential – to think, act and persevere through hardship to achieve success in life.

A second point to make is that many of these men were immigrants to America, escaping poverty and sometimes despotism to succeed where they were free to create and benefit from their creations.  These immigrants exercised choice in a particularly heroic way: They chose to leave behind the familiar, including friends and family, to face an uncertain future.  They did not need to be guaranteed success but were undergirded by the knowledge that where they were going had fewer restrictions (social, religious or governmental) and more opportunities to succeed if they worked hard.  None of these men had any illusions that life would be easy, or that success would be immediate or automatic.

There are many other implications, including political ones, that could be drawn from these stories, but the relevant point for our purpose is clear:  These men can and did choose to “build it”, and there were not just a few isolated “freaks” but a massive wave of them, whether they came from abroad or chose to follow their dreams having grown up within a mile of their first factory.

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