Business Antedotes


Gideon Lee, one of the early leather merchants in New York, recollected his childhood:

                    I remember when I was a lad living with my uncle, it was

                    my business to feed and milk the cows. And many a time,

                    long before light in the morning, I started off in the cold and

                    snow, without shoes, to work, and used to think it a luxury

                    to warm my frozen feet on the spot just before occupied by the

animal I had roused. It taught me to reflect, and to consider possibilities; and I remember asking myself: “Is it not possible

                    for me to better my condition?”


When Horatio Alger was attending Harvard, he first rented rooms from a certain Mrs. Curran, who one day appeared in the nude in front of the young scholar. “I shall have to move,” he confided to his diary, “to where there is more respect for decency.” So Horatio acquired his next Cambridge landlord: a kindly old man who was trying to run a bookstore.

Mr. Floyd Thurstone was obviously more interested in helping his tenants with their studies than in his business, which was rapidly heading for bankruptcy. Young Horatio, out of sympathy for his landlord, entered an essay contest. He worked feverishly at an essay about Socrates, which was awarded the first prize of $40. He then offered the money toward the mortgage, which saved the bookstore and the Thurstone house. His act of generosity did not go unrewarded. Horatio was facing uncertain prospects after graduating from Harvard Divinity School, when Mr. Thurstone suddenly died, and in a Dickensian turn of events, left everything he owned to Horatio—a ring, a watch, and $2,000 in cash.

Alger, who had studied divinity only to please his father, now took the money and went off to Europe, where a Parisian café singer finally initiated him into the facts of life.

“I was a fool to have waited so long,” wrote the future patron saint of entrepreneurs: “It is not nearly as vile as I had thought.”


P. T. Barnum typified not only American showmanship and a genius for adver-tising, but an all-round talent for business. He began young:

                    My organ of “acquisitiveness” was manifest at an early age.

                    Before I was five years of age, I began to accumulate pennies

                    and “four-pences,” and when I was six years old my capital

                    amounted to a sum sufficient to exchange for a silver dollar,

                    the possession of which made me feel far richer and more

                    independent than I have ever since felt in the world.

                    Nor did my dollar long remain alone. As I grew older I earned

                    ten cents a day for riding the horse which led the ox team in

                    ploughing, and on holidays and “training days,” instead of

                    spending money, learned it. I was a small peddler of molasses

                    candy (of home make), ginger-bread, cookies and cherry rum,

                    and I generally found myself a dollar or two richer at the end of

                    a holiday than I was at the beginning. I was always ready for a

                    trade, and by the time I was twelve years old, besides other property,

                    I was the owner of a sheep and a calf, and should soon no doubt

                    have become a small Croesus, had not my father kindly permitted

                    me to purchase my own clothing, which somewhat reduced my

                    little store.


President Lincoln once described to William H. Seward, his secretary of war, how the first dollar he made caused him to feel about himself I was about eighteen years of age. I belonged, you know, to what they call down South, the “Scrubs”; people who do not own slaves are nobody there. But we had succeeded in raising, chiefly by my labor, sufficient produce, as I thought, to justify me in taking it down the river to sell. After much persuasion, I got the consent of Mother to go, and constructed a little flatboat, large enough to take a barrel or two of things that we had gathered, with myself and little bundle, down to New Orleans

A steamer was coming down the river. We have, you know, no wharves on the Western streams; and the custom was, if passengers were at any of the landings, for them to go out in a boat, the steamer stopping and taking them on board. I was contemplating my new flatboat, and wondering whether I could make it stronger or improve it in any particular, when two men came down to the shore in carriages with trunks, and looking at the different boats, singled out mine, and asked: “Who owns this?” I answered, somewhat modestly: “I do.” “Will you,” said one of them, “take us and our trunks out to the steamer?” “Certainly,” said I.

I was very glad to have the chance of earning something. I suppose that each of them would give me two or three bits. The trunks were out on my flatboat, the passengers seated themselves on the trunks, and I sculled them out to the steamboat. They got on board, and I lifted up their heavy trunks and put them on deck. The steamer was about to put on steam again, when I called out that they had forgotten to pay. Each of them took from his pocket a silver half-dollar, and threw it on the floor of my boat. I could scarcely believe my eyes as I picked up the money.

You may think it was a very little thing, and in these days it seems to me a trifle; but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy , had earned a dollar in less than a day—that by honest work I had earned a dollar. The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time.


Andrew Carnegie was the son of poor weavers. Before he left Scotland for the New World at the age of 10, he attended Sunday school.

“What teaching can you quote from the Bible?” the minister asked young Andrew, who immediately provided the Scottish proverb:    “Take care of your pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.”

“Be you not ashamed of yourself, lad”; said the clergyman, “that saying is surely not in the Bible.”

“It ought to be,” replied the future industrialist.


Although Andrew Carnegie was known as the “Steel King,” he did not know

very much about the manufacturing of steel. But he knew how to handle people, and it was his talent for organization and leadership that made him rich. When he was still a boy in Scotland, little Andrew found a pregnant hare. Soon he had a whole nest of furry little bunnies, but nothing to feed them. Then he had a bright idea. He asked all the boys he knew in the neighborhood to gather enough clover and dandelions for feed, and, in return, he promised to name a bunny after each one of them.

Later in life Carnegie said that his conscience troubled him for exploiting his play-mates in this manner, but that he gave them the only reward at his disposal. How-ever, the lesson stayed with him. When Carnegie wanted to sell his steel to the Pennsylvania Railroad, he built a vast new steel mill in Pittsburgh and named it the “ J. Edgar Thomson Steel Works.” J. Edgar Thomson happened to be president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he was so delighted at having the new works named after him, that he did not need any further persuasion to order all the steel he needed from Carnegie.


Cornelius Vanderbilt early showed the stuff he was made of. He was riding racehorses when he was 6 and began his love affair with open water by assisting his father on his boat. The older Vanderbilt was a farmer on Staten Island and started the ferry to New York in order to sell his produce there. Sometimes other business came his way, as when he was contracted to transport the cargo from a ship that ran aground near Sandy Hook. The lighters that were to carry the goods to the city could not reach the ship, and it was necessary to haul the cargo, transported in wagons, across the sands from the vessel. The 12-year-old Cornelius was placed in charge of this operation. He loaded his lighters, sent them up to New York, and then started for home with his wagons. When he reached South Amboy, the future Commodore found he had no cash to get himself, his wagons, horses, and men back to Staten Island. The ferry passage amounted to $6, and he was mom-entarily at a loss about how to raise the money. Finally, he went to the tavern keeper, to whom he was a total stranger, and asked for a loan of $6, offering to leave one of his horses, which he promised to redeem within two days . The taverner was so impressed by the boy’s energy that he loaned him the money, and the party got back home. The pawned horse was promptly redeemed.


Jack Newton Daniel displayed his business ingenuity early. At the age of  6 he ran away from his family in Lincoln County, Tennessee, where, as the youngest of ten children, he was known as the runt, and convinced a neighboring family to adopt him. With one stroke he became the oldest child in his new household. When he was 7, Jack was offered a job as a houseboy by Dan Call, who combined his calling as a Lutheran minister with making a living as a merchant, farmer, and also, whiskey distiller. Young Jack was eager to learn about the mysteries of making moonshine and sour mash. And when Dan Call’s congregation pressured him to choose between the pulpit and his still, he offered his 13-your-old apprentice the opportunity to buy his distillery on credit. Jack had been saving his salary of $5 a month, as welt as learning the business, so in 1860 he bought the whiskey business that to this day bears his name.


Herbert Hoover was working in his uncle’s real estate office in Oregon, when the company got into financial difficulties. The partners held a meeting late into the night to see how they could get themselves out of the mess, but ended up bickering and shouting at each other. In the middle of all the name-calling the lights suddenly went out, so the partners, after they were united by complaining about the gas company, decided to postpone their problems and stumbled home. When Uncle John was about to lock up the office, he noticed his nephew appear near the gas valves outside, and he became suspicious:

“Bert! Did thee turn out the tights?”

“They were only running up the gas bill,” answered the future secretary of com-merce and president of the United States “and there was no use in that kind of talk.”


According to People magazine, Bill Gates is to software what Thomas

Edison was to light bulbs—”part innovator, part entrepreneur, part salesman, and full-time genius.” The future founder of Microsoft became involved with com-puters and business while in seventh grade at a Seattle private school. One summer he earned more than $4,000 programming the school schedules on a time-share mainframe. He and his school buddy, Paul Allen, became computer hackers who broke into and crashed the data banks of such companies as Burroughs and Control Data . A year later they decided to go straight and founded a small company called Traf 0-Data, which used a new Intel 8008 microprocessor to analyze traffic patterns in Seattle. The company grossed $20,000 that first year: Bill Gates was 15.

The following year, he went to Congress—as a page—and witnessed from close up the 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign. The young entrepreneur bought up 5,000 Democratic campaign buttons, just after Senator McGovern dumped Senator Eagleton as his running male. Gates paid five cents for the suddenly obsolete political weapons, which he soon resold as historical and rare memorabilia, often at $25 each. At 17, Bill took a formal leave of absence from his school. He and Allen were hired by TRW to develop software at a reported salary of $30,000. Later he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, which became the top software company in the world . Recently he also became the world’s youngest self-made billion-aire, at thirty. He might go back to Harvard one day—although more likely as a professor.

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