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Do These 5 Artifacts Encapsulate the Entrepreneurial Spirit?

Do These 5 Artifacts Encapsulate the Entrepreneurial Spirit?

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.

The Smithsonian’s ‘American Enterprise‘ exhibit will open sometime in 2015. Learn more about included artifacts and how you can contribute to the exhibit here.


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Images via Thinkstock, and Jaclyn Nash/Hugh Talman/Richard Strauss of Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

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3:23PM PDT on May 9, 2015

The secret of onnovation and entrepreneurship are learning to identify needs, and finding viable, affordable, useable, as well as effective solutions to meet that need.

9:21PM PDT on Jul 13, 2014

WE must move beyond this either/or mindset. We need inovation and taxes on consuption not income,we need some regulation to protect the environment and people from poor quality goods and services and rip offs.And the bigger the companys get, the more they need to be checked for quality standards and fair labor conditions, safety, and decent wages. It's when things are allowed to go just all one way that the need for ever more rules and control become necessary. Profit for the owners and share holders can't be the primary consideration. Todays capitalism is hardly an example of what it could be if the prime motive was waste nothing, build it because it's efficient, functional, beautiful and wanted, and priced high enough to allow a reasonable profit.For that kind of capitalism to work, all people must have a livable share of the money supply. So why are people still stuck in this it has to be capitalism or socialisim ? The new will be a combination of many factors.

2:11AM PDT on Jul 12, 2014

Kudos to all the inventors out there !

12:28PM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

Innovation is wonderful and it is a damned shame that we are not doing much manufacturing in this country. People are still inventing and corporations are often buying out and suppressing individual creativity.

4:55PM PDT on Jul 8, 2014

Innovation comes from someone seeing a need and creating a solution. It also comes from a creative mind dreaming up somthing not of need but of a desire to improve their lives by profit.
The more free a society the greater the innovations. Capitalism drove most of the innovation in the world, now many have bern convinced by those that want to control people is somehow evil and therfore must be bound by government force. How is voluntary trade evil?

4:53PM PDT on Jul 8, 2014

Innovation comes from someone seeing a need and creating a solution. It also comes from a creative mind dreaming up somthing not of need but of a desire to improve their lives by profit.
The more free a society the greater the innovations. Capitalism drove most of the innovation in the world, now many have bern convinced by those that want to control people is somehow evil and therfore must be bound by government force. How is

3:37PM PDT on Jul 8, 2014

The spirit is still alive it's government thar has made innovation and starting a business harder. A century ago it only took hard work, skill and little money to start a business. Today regulation and taxes are barriers to that.

The public battle over taxi service with over regulated establised businesses vs. upstart software apps. Do we let cites impose all the same regulation on the freelance cab drivers esentually killing the services are do we deregulate and open the market? Obviously the consumer would benifits from increased competition and reduced regulatio.s when it comes to taxis. How much innovation in other fields are killed by government barriers?

4:32AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

No matter what, the spirit should keep watching over our environment

3:26AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014


3:06AM PDT on Jul 7, 2014

I think if you look hard at any item or invention you can find something negative. If you so choose. I prefer in most of the examples to see the good things they have done for the world.

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