Entrepreneurship has always been an important part of America’s identity. To be your own boss is to take your destiny by the reins, and with any luck, a step toward financial freedom.
Becoming an entrepreneur used to be as simple as having a skill and hanging out a shingle, but today it’s quite different. There are laws and regulations that govern the formulation of a business, but for the most part, anyone is welcome to try. Today, even a sole proprietor can serve an international market, thanks to global communication and trade made possible by the Internet. As such, we no longer see entrepreneurship as something reserved for those with years of experience or fancy degrees stacked up behind their name. Some of today’s most successful entrepreneurs started young and skipped college altogether.
An upcoming Smithsonian exhibit seeks to “examine American history through an entrepreneurial prism.” The installation, which will be on display at the National Museum of American History, gathers artifacts that embody the ingenuity and creativity of some of the nation’s most well-known brands and business people. Many of them triggered shifts at the societal level, though looking back, it’s hard to say whether it was for better or worse.
As a teaser, the Smithsonian recently revealed five of the artifacts chosen for inclusion. What do you think they tell us, individually and collectively, about the spirit of entrepreneurship in America? What would you have included instead? Tell us in the comments below.
1. General Electric D-12 Type 3 Electric Toaster, 1909
This was the first electric toaster to be sold commercially. It represents the dawn of the electrical age, when enough people had access to power to warrant electrical appliances. It also symbolizes our quest for convenience, faster food, and taking things like reliable energy for granted. Today, 105 years later, 1.6 billion people — a quarter of humanity — still live without electricity.
2. Mr. Peanut, 1916
You might be surprised to learn that the now-iconic Planters logo was actually created by a teenager, and submitted to the company in a contest. It represents the beginning of what would become the modern advertising industry — relentless in its goal to create emotional connections with objects so that consumerism would become a subconscious compulsion.
3. Fordson Tractor, 1924
We all know Henry Ford for the Model T, but having grown up on a farm, he also experimented with tractor design. The Fordson was small, light, and mass-produced. These qualities made it possible for the average farmer to own a tractor for the first time. It represents efficiency in agriculture, as well as the beginning of our disconnection from the land, which put us on the path to factory farming.
4. Marshall Field’s Cash Register, 1914
Marshall Fields was a much-loved store that started out as a single storefront in 1880. It was eventually acquired by the Target Corporation in 1990 and subsequently folded into Macy’s in 2005. It’s hard to see a cash register without thinking about consumerism in America, our desire for material possessions and the shift from making and growing those things ourselves, to buying them at the Big Box store. Even more subtly, it tells a story about how hard it is to succeed as a small business in America: if the corporations can’t push you out, they’ll gobble you up instead.
5. Google Corkboard Server, 1999
Google. It started in a garage, and in a time when resources were tight, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin built the original servers from the cheapest possible materials — including cork board for insulation. Today it’s hard to think of another brand so inextricably linked to the concepts of entrepreneurship and success in modern America. Unfortunately, it’s also linked to invasion of privacy, idea theft and monopolistic practices.
Images via Thinkstock, and Jaclyn Nash/Hugh Talman/Richard Strauss of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.