Business Antedotes

WINSTON CHURCHILL called anecdotes the “gleaming toys of history,” and indeed an anecdote that gives a vivid glimpse into an event or a personality can be worth a hundred pages of a biography or management text. The anecdotes in The Book of Business Anecdotes were selected to be of lasting value for professionals and aficionados alike. It is a volume to savor and to dip into, again and again. Conveniently organized by subject, it is global in scope, covering all periods and continents.


In the early days of the New Yorker. the offices were so small and sparsely furnished that Dorothy Parker preferred to spend her days at a nearby coffee shop. One day, the editor found her sitting there.

“Why aren’t you upstairs, working?” demanded Harold Ross.

“Someone was using the pencil.” Mrs. Parker explaiiied.

How to Lose Your Shirt

As Joseph Kennedy once told a class at the Harvard Business School: “A1most anybody can lose his shirt on Wall Street if he’s got enough capital to start with and the proper inside information.”

And That’s Final

Somebody once approached Louis B. Mayer for a donation to charity reminding him of the old saw: “You can’t take it with you.” The movie mogul seemed very surprised and quickly replied: “Then I won’t go!”


Robert Burns was standing one day on the waterfront at Greenock when a wealthy merchant from the town had the misfortune of falling into the harbor. The man could not swim, and he would have drowned had not a passing sailor immediately plunged in and rescued him, risking his own life in a dangerous situation. The merchant, when he recovered from his fright, put his hand into his pocket and rewarded the sailor with a shilling.

There was quite a crowd collecting, and there were some contemptuous jeers about the insignificance of the sum. But Burns, with a scornful smile, asked them to restrain their clamor.

“The gentleman,” said the poet, “is of course the best judge of the value of his own life.”



Dr. John Brown, a famous Scots commentator on the Scriptures, was so poor that he went into a store in Dunse to buy a halfpenny worth of cheese. The shopkeeper said he was unable to accommodate him with so small a portion.

“Then what’s the least you can sell?” inquired the customer.     “A pennyworth,” replied the dealer. He instantly weighed out that amount and speedily placed the cheese on the counter in anticipation of payment.

“Now,” said the scholar, borrowing the tradesman’s knife, “I will instruct you how to sell a halfpenny worth of cheese in future—” and he cut the small piece of cheese in two. Then he picked up one half , paid down his copper, and departed from the store.


At the turn of the century, the Baroness Burdett-Coutts was one of the wealthiest women in the world. She was once shopping in a Paris department store, and, as she passed from one department to another, the accompanying clerk would say to the next clerk: “Two-ten.” The Baroness wanted to find out what the phrase meant.

“It is just a greeting clerks are in the habit of exchanging,” was the unsatisfactory explanation given. That evening, when the store’s porter delivered her purchases to the hotel, she asked him if he would like to earn five francs. With that inducement, he told the millionairess that the phrase was a code word used to identify suspected shoplifters: Two-ten meant that each clerk was to use two eyes to watch the customer’s ten fingers.


At the bottom of the Great Depression, the Hudson’s Bay Company received a letter from a Canadian farmer, which was read out during the annual meeting in 1932:

                    I got your letter about what I owe. Now be pachant.

                    I ain’t forgot you. Please wait. When I have the money

                    I will pay you. If this was the judgement Day and you

                    was no more prepared to meet your maker than I am to

                     meet your account you sure would go to Hell. Trusting

                    you will do this, etc. etc.


An undertaker in early nineteenth-century England presented a gentleman with the bill for £67 for the burial of his wife.

“That’s a vast sum,” said the widower, “for laying a silent female horizontally! You must have made some mistake.”

“Not in the least!” answered the coffin monger. “A handsome hearse—three coaches and six-well-dressed mutes—handsome pall—nobody, your honour, could do it for less.”

The gentleman replied: “It is a large sum, but as I am satisfied that the poor woman would have given twice as much to bury me, I must not be behind her in an act of kindness; there is a check for the amount.


Frank Brower, one of the favorite black minstrels of nineteenth-century-America, walked into the barroom of the Metropolitan one day, dusty and unkempt from a long journey, and asked for a glass of brandy. The saloon-keeper handed out the brandy, and then, suspicious of the man’s appearance, said:

“Just pay for that before you drink it, will you?” Brower, who was about as well known in New York as any man about town, looked up astonished, and stammered:


“Just pay for the brandy before you drink it,” the bartender repeated.

The minstrel leaned across the counter: “Why,” he asked confidentially, “ is it so im-m-mediatel f-f-fatal in its effect?”


When Abraham Lincoln was a young man he took a sack of grain to be ground at the mill. The owner had the reputation for being the slowest and laziest miller in Illinois. After watching him for a while, Lincoln said, “You know, I think I could eat that grain as fast as you are grinding it.”

“But how long could you keep it up?” the miller replied ungraciously.

“Until I starve to death,” the future president retorted.


Georges Feydeau, French writer of farces, ordered lobster at Maxim’s, one of those restaurants where one’s dinner is seen floating about in a tank. When the dish was served, the playwright noticed that the lobster had only one claw. The waiter was summoned and offered the explanation that lobsters were very combative and because of the space problem inherent in tanks, accidents frequently happened.

“I want you to take this one back,” Feydeau told the waiter, “and bring me the victor.”


Comedian joe Frisco lived high when he had money and refused to save. (Once his agent advised him that he probably could have saved $100,000 against the next depression, to which the comic replied with his famous stutter: “With in-in-my luck there might not be a d-d-depression, and I’d be s-s-s-stuck with a hundred thousand d-d-dollars.”) By the 1950s he was broke and living in a seedy residential hotel of the type that still dot the decaying center of Hollywood. One night when Frisco tried to sneak in an old friend who needed a bed for the night, he received a phone call from the manager reminding him that it would cost an extra dollar to have a guest stay in the room.

“In that c-c-case,” sighed the comedian, “send up another B-b-b-bible.”


In 1673, Hachirobei Mitsui opened a Shop in Kyoto with a large sign that was to become famous in the history of Japanese retailing: CASH ONLY AND ONE PRICE ONLY. Until then customers mostly bought on account, which carried interest, much like our credit cards do today. By insisting on cash paynlent, Mitsui could slash prices below those of his competitors. Those prices were determined according to time-honored custom, by endless haggling. Mitsui became the first merchant to insist on fixed prices, a custom that spread throughout Japan. As Mitsui stores branched out, employing hundreds of men and women, the company began to establish—three centuries ago—some of the practices that Western industry did not discover until our own age: managers received a profit-sharing plan, and the company provided dormitories, baths, rest periods, and health services for their employees.


John Wanamaker pioneered a money-back guarantee” policy in 1865. Marshall Field also offered a return policy after a customer had tried a purchase at home. Once a lady bought a cape for a specific occasion, which she returned the day after the ball, claiming that she had never worn it. Because it was a very expensive cape, the matter was brought to Field’s attention. After the lady left with her refund, Field found her handkerchief tucked into the cape’s pocket. Convinced that the customer is always right, the merchant said: “If she said she didn’t wear it, she didn’t wear it. But I guess we’d better send the handkerchief back to her.”

On another day, Field was looking at the $800 price tag on a tablecloth imported from Italy. “You’ll never sell it,” he told A . L. Bell, the head of his linen department. A week passed, and Bell was summoned by the boss.

“Your judgment was better than nhine,” said Field. I was at a friend’s house last night and dined on the tablecloth I said you’d never sell.” It was now Bell’s turn to confess.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Field. That lady took the tahlecloth on approval yesterday and returned it today.”


It has been said that Rich’s is a store that married Atlanta. Spread over two city blocks, the main store has a floor space of twenty-nine acres. It is so very enormous that when a woman once asked a bus driver whether he went by Rich’s, he replied, “Madam, I go by Rich’s, under Rich’s, through Rich’s and around Rich’s.”


Frank Winfield Woolworth hated farming so much that he offered to work in a store for free instead. The dry-goods store (so called because it did not sell liquor) in Watertown, New York, had a table of five-cent items, which sold well enough for young Woolworth to venture out on his own. With help and a $300 credit from his employers, he opened the first “Great Five-Cent Store” in Utica, New York in 1879. Despite early failures, the nickels and dimes kept adding up, and by the time Woolworth died in 1919, there were 1,081 of his stores worldwide, and a hundred of his associates and employees had become millionaires.

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