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From the cotton gin to computers: Telling the story of business in America

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief
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Model T

Model T / Smithsonian

It’s a call that most Americans would be honored to get. An email from the Smithsonian Institution last May asking me if I wanted me to do some work for them. The Smithsonian, or more specifically the National Museum of American History, was requesting that I help edit a book they were publishing in conjunction with the opening of a major new exhibit on the history of American business, called “American Enterprise.” The exhibition would be the first focused look at business in our country by the museum—and it would run for 20 years. For someone who loves history and is a student of all things business, it sounded like a terrific project. (Maybe it’s not quite like getting a call from the Baseball Hall of Fame, but then again I never could hit a curve ball. Or a fastball for that matter.)
The first step would be understanding the assignment and then wrapping my brain around the exhibition itself. Carolyn Gleason, the editor of the book, explained to me that the exhibit, which is set to open July 1, would be divided into four chronological sections: The Merchant Era, 1770-1850s; The Corporate Era, 1860s-1930s; The Consumer Era, 1940s-1970s; and The Global Era, 1980s-Present.

David Allison, the museum’s associate director of curatorial affairs who oversees the exhibit, later gave me more context: “When you think about it, America itself was an innovation. It was a country that for the first time would govern itself in the modern world. And so that theme of innovation, not just in politics, but also in technology, was part of the thinking about the country from the beginning, and we’re looking here at how that innovation plays itself out in business.” I could see—not surprisingly—that a good deal of thinking had gone into this. But what exactly did the museum have in mind for me?

Gleason explained that my job was to conceive, solicit and edit essays from eight prominent Americans and match these pieces into the four sections of the book—which are richly filled with historical maps, photos, photos of artifacts and artwork. (One of my favorites is a vintage picture of an IBM salesman on a gondola in Venice.) Each of the sections would close with two of theses contributor essays called "Modern Perspectives."
How to figure out who would write the pieces and which essay would go where? That involved some serious brainstorming with Carolyn Gleason, discussing various candidates and deciding where they might best fit. For example, we concluded that Bill Ford, scion and executive chairman of Ford (F), might want to weigh in on the Corporate Era section, given that his great-grandfather founded the iconic automaker back then. And Ford did, penning an essay entitled “Can Business Serve Society.” He wrote:  “Growing up in the Ford family, we regularly talked about the business around the dinner table…” (Wouldn’t you have liked to be a fly on that wall?) And later Ford wrote about a longstanding concern of his: “I believed and still do that environmental sustainability is the most important long-term challenge for businesses around the world.” I’ve known Bill Ford for some time and have taken note of his long-standing championing of sustainability. I think it’s the case that he’s really helped move the needle with this issue in the auto industry. (Ford would likely say there’s more work to be done, and also acknowledge there’s still more work to be done with the Detroit Lions, which his family owns.)

Related: The napkin that changed the world and other American disruptors
As for the Consumer Era, who better to write about that period than former FDIC chief Sheila Bair, a fierce advocate for Everyman/woman in the financial sector? “If the best companies in America have wanted lifelong bonds with their customers,” she writes in her essay entitled "Business and Consumers: What Makes for a Great Relationship," “the worst ones have had something altogether different on their minds.” Bair, a populist Republican from Kansas, is not surprisingly very much an original thinker when it comes to her writing, and as such is always interesting to edit.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and another contributor, asks "Does American Enterprise Exist in the Globalism Era?" He writes that “…some firms will choose to be truly global—to owe no nation loyalty—and some will choose to reaffirm their identity as American enterprises. Both can contribute to the U.S. economy, but only one can rightly claim to be an “American” enterprise, and only one kind should be treated as part of our national community.” It seems pretty clear that this is a not-so-veiled reference to the controversy surrounding tax inversions, whereby companies move their headquarters overseas to lower their tax rates while retaining much of their  operations in the U.S. and benefitting from everything our country has to offer, such as infrastructure, rule of law and security. Good grist there.
I’d like to think the other essays are compelling as well. After all, this is work that is supposed to stand for 20 years. So go to Washington and see the exhibition and let me know what you think about it. And let me know about the book too.

Related video:

'American Enterprise,' companion book to an exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History