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“Business . . . the Salvation of the World”: Celebrating Big Business

With his famously laconic style, President Calvin Coolidge captured the spirit of the 1920s when he announced in a speech before the Society of American Newspaper Editors that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Coolidge’s aphorism revealed the centrality of commerce to the nation and its culture in the 1920s, even while it concealed some of the wrenching cultural changes that were required to accommodate a commercial civilization. An even more forceful publicist for the view that business and spirituality were compatible was Bruce Barton. The son of a Congregational minister, Barton co-founded one of the nation’s largest and best-known advertising agencies. Barton’s greatest fame, however, came from his 1925 best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows, in which he crafted a new vision of Christ and Christianity that was not simply compatible with but organically connected to the business-oriented 1920s. Barton’s aggressive efforts to merge business and Christianity may seem comical in the late 20th century, but his exertions were sincerely felt by him and sincerely received by many Americans. Edward E. Purinton’s 1921 article, “Big Ideas for Big Business,” from the magazine Independent similarly promoted business as "the salvation of the world."

Among the nations of the earth today America stands for one idea: Business. National opprobrium? National opportunity. For in this fact lies, potentially, the salvation of the world.

Through business, properly conceived, managed, and conducted, the human race is finally to be redeemed. How and why a man works foretells what he will do, think, have, give, and be. And real salvation is in doing, thinking, having, giving, and being—not in sermonizing and theorizing.

I shall base the facts of this article on the personal tours and minute examinations I have recently made of twelve of the world’s largest business plants: U.S. Steel Corporation; International Harvester Company; Swift & Company; E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company; National City Bank; National Cash Register Company; Western Electric Company; Sears, Roebuck & Company; H. J. Heinz Company; Peabody Coal Company; Statler Hotels; Wanamaker Stores.

These organizations are typical, foremost representatives of the commercial group of interests loosely termed “Big Business.” A close view of these corporations would reveal to any trained, unprejudiced observer a new conception of modern business activities. Let me draw a few general conclusions regarding the best type of business house and businessman.

What is the finest game? Business. The soundest science? Business. The truest art? Business. The fullest education? Business. The fairest opportunity? Business. The cleanest philanthropy? Business. The sanest religion? Business.

You may not agree. That is because you judge business by the crude, mean, stupid, false imitation of business that happens to be located near you.

The finest game is business. The rewards are for everybody, and all can win. There are no favorites—Providence always crowns the career of the man who is worthy. And in this game there is no “luck”—you have the fun of taking chances but the sobriety of guaranteeing certainties. The speed and size of your winnings are for you alone to determine; you needn’t wait for the other fellow in the game—it is always your move. And your slogan is not “Down the Other Fellow!” but rather “Beat Your Own Record!” or “Do It Better Today!” or “Make Every Job a Masterpiece!” The great sportsmen of the world are the great businessmen.

The soundest science is business. All investigation is reduced to action, and by action proved or disproved. The idealistic motive animates the materialistic method. Hearts as well as minds are open to the truth. Capital is furnished for the researches of “pure science”; yet pure science is not regarded pure until practical. Competent scientists are suitably rewarded—as they are not in the scientific schools.

The truest art is business. The art is so fine, so exquisite, that you do not think of it as art. Language, color, form, line, music, drama, discovery, adventure—all the components of art must be used in business to make it of superior character.

The fullest education is business. A proper blend of study, work, and life is essential to advancement. The whole man is educated. Human nature itself is the open book that all businessmen study; and the mastery of a page of this educates you more than the memorizing of a dusty tome from a library shelf. In the school of business, moreover, you teach yourself and learn most from your own mistakes. What you learn here you live out, the only real test.

The fairest opportunity is business. You can find more, better, quicker chances to get ahead in a large business house than anywhere else on earth. The biographies of champion businessmen show how they climbed, and how you can climb. Recognition of better work, of keener and quicker thought, of deeper and finer feeling, is gladly offered by the men higher up, with early promotion the rule for the man who justifies it. There is, and can be, no such thing as buried talent in a modern business organization.

The cleanest philanthropy is business. By “clean” philanthropy I mean that devoid of graft, inefficiency, and professionalism, also of condolence, hysterics, and paternalism. Nearly everything that goes by the name of Charity was born a triplet, the other two members of the trio being Frailty and Cruelty. Not so in the welfare departments of leading corporations. Savings and loan funds; pension and insurance provisions; health precautions, instructions, and safeguards; medical attention and hospital care; libraries, lectures, and classes; musical, athletic, and social features of all kinds; recreational facilities and financial opportunities—these types of “charitable institutions” for employees add to the worker’s self-respect, self-knowledge, and self-improvement by making him an active partner in the welfare program, a producer of benefits for his employer and associates quite as much as a recipient of bounty from the company. I wish every “charity” organization would send its officials to school to the heads of the welfare departments of the big corporations; the charity would mostly be transformed into capability, and the minimum of irreducible charity left would not be called by that name.

The sanest religion is business. Any relationship that forces a man to follow the Golden Rule rightfully belongs amid the ceremonials of the church. A great business enterprise includes and presupposes this relationship. I have seen more Christianity to he square inch as a regular part of the office equipment of famous corporation presidents than may ordinarily be found on Sunday in a verbalized but not vitalized church congregation. A man is not wholly religious until he is better on weekdays than he is on Sunday. The only ripened fruits of creeds are deeds. You can fool your preacher with sickly sprout or a wormy semblance of character, but you can’t fool your employer. I would make every business house a consultation bureau for the guidance of the church whose members were employees of the house.

I am aware that some of the preceding statements will be challenged by many readers. I should not myself have made them, or believed them, twenty years ago, when I was a pitiful specimen of a callow youth and cocksure professional man combined. A thorough knowledge of business has implanted a deep respect for business and real businessmen.

The future work of the businessman is to teach the teacher, preach to the preacher, admonish the parent, advise the doctor, justify the lawyer, superintend the statesman, fructify the farmer, stabilize the banker, harness the dreamer, and reform the reformer. Do all these needy persons wish to have these many kind things done to them by the businessman? Alas, no. They rather look down upon him, or askance at him, regarding him as a mental and social inferior—unless he has money or fame enough to tilt their glance upward.

A large variety of everyday lessons of popular interest may be gleaned from a tour of the world’s greatest business plants and a study of the lives of their founders. We suggest a few.

1. The biggest thing about a big success is the price. It takes a big man to pay the price. You can measure in advance the size of your success by how much you are willing to pay for it. I do not refer to money. I refer to the time, thought, energy, economy, purpose, devotion, study, sacrifice, patience, care that a man must give to his lifework before he can make it amount to anything.

The business world is full of born crusaders. Many of the leaders would be called martyrs if they weren’t rich. The founders of the vast corporations have been, so far as I know them, fired with zeal that is supposed to belong only to missionaries. Of all the uncompromising, untiring, unsparing idealists in the world today, none surpass the founders and heads of the business institutions that have made character the cornerstone. The costliest thing on earth is idealism.

2. Great men are silent about themselves. Conversely, the more a man talks about his personality, his family, his property, his position, his past, present or future achievements, the less he usually amounts to or will ever become. We had to spend weeks of hard work to obtain personal interviews with the heads of the International Harvester Company.

They prefer the forge to the limelight. They do not want free “publicity.” And they refuse to make oral statements that might be misquoted or misunderstood; they insist that all facts and figures for publication be checked with utmost care, sometimes through a dozen departments, to prevent the least inaccuracy.

3. The best way to keep customers is to make friends. Of all the assets of a business concern the chief is goodwill. To gain this, you can afford to spend as much as to manufacture or sell your product.

Now a fundamental rule in creating goodwill is to benefit the customer in a way he does not look for, does not pay for. The Western Electric Company offers to teach any woman the principles of household efficiency, mailing on request literature without charge. The science of managing a home indicates the use of electrical appliances, but the company wants to teach the science whether it sells the goods or not. This is “good business” because genuine service.

4. Only common experiences will unite the laborer and the capitalist. Each must get the viewpoint of the other by sharing the work, duties, and responsibilities of the other. The sons of the families of Swift, McCormick, Wanamaker, Heinz, du Pont have learned the business from the ground up; they know the trials, difficulties, and needs of workers because they are workers; and they don’t have to settle agitations and strikes because there aren’t any.

Further, by councils and committees of employees, management courses for department heads and foremen, plans of referendum and appeal, offers of stock and voting power to workers, employee representation on the Board of Directors, and other means of sharing authority and responsibility, owners of a business now give the manual workers a chance to think and feel in unison with themselves. All enmity is between strangers. Those who really know each other cannot fight.

5. Every business needs a woman counselor. Better, a woman’s advisory board. Nearly all manufacturing and merchandising relates somehow to the interests of womankind.

Before E. M. Statler built his latest hotel in his big chain of hostelries, he consulted the housekeeper and matron of his masterpiece house, Hotel Pennsylvania, the world’s largest inn. He wanted to know the precise arrangement, equipment, and service that women guests valued most. He knew that no man could tell him.

There could be written a book of business revelations that would astonish the world. Over and over, at critical times in the development of national corporations, the hidden hand of a woman has held the huge concern at balance, or swung it in the right direction. You can no more run a business without a woman’s intuition than you can run a boat without a keel.

6. The great new field for professional men is corporation work. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, editors, psychologists, chemists, bankers, engineers, even philosophers and ministers now find pleasant, permanent, lucrative employment as heads of departments in famous business houses.

On my tour of the establishment of Swift & Company, I met a former editor of a big Chicago paper, a former professor and noted economist of one of our largest universities, a former engineer and author of national reputation, other professional men of high standing who were doing bigger work, for better pay, in the Swift employ than previous positions had afforded opportunity to develop. More and more, business will demand the knowledge and skill of scientists and artists of many kinds.

7. The pleasure of money is not in having or spending it. The pleasure is in getting it—and giving it away. Money rewards the exercise of keen brains and quick wits, but the real fun is in the exercise. I don’t know of a single self-made millionaire who puts money first. There is always something bigger and better than money in his mind. . . .

8. A family heritage of wealth alone is the worst kind. Most parents think they are good to their children if they leave a large bankroll, easily accessible. Others foolishly magnify the bestowal of a college education, or social position, or some other inheritance not earned, and not valued because not earned.

Founders of great business enterprises know better. They bequeath to their sons a personal equipment of aims, principles, and methods which make real men of the scions of wealth. When I asked Howard Heinz, president of the H. J. Heinz Company, to describe the ideal businessman, he answered simply, “My father.” When I asked him to outline his own secret of success and purpose in life, he answered, “The fulfillment of my father’s plans for industrial and social betterment, by carrying out faithfully the principles he laid down for the conduct of the business.”

9. Age is nothing to a live man. When a person gets old the calendar is not to blame—he was born dead from the heart out and the neck up.

John H. Patterson was of middle age before he really started the National Cash Register Company. He had no experience in the business either, having been a country storekeeper without personal knowledge of engineering or manufacturing. But he got a purpose—and forgot everything else. Whoever does that is young till he dies. It is never too late to make a fresh start in life.

The men who grow immortal have stopped counting birthdays. J. Pierpont Morgan, James J. Hill, Henry Ford, Elbert Hubbard, Walt Mason, Dr. Frank Crane, many others in places of high renown didn’t really get going till past forty.

10. The most powerful preacher is, or can be, the lay preacher. The business manager of Gary, Indiana, the world’s largest industrial city, preaches nearly every Sunday. He is called upon by the pastors and priests of churches of a dozen different faiths and nationalities whose members are employees of the U.S. Steel Corporation to address the congregations in some helpful, appropriate way. Because he is a fine businessman, with power, skill, and money back of him, the men of the city want to hear what he has to say. And because he is a gentleman—kind, thoughtful, and sympathetic—the women of the church listen gladly to his lay sermons.

I look forward to the day when professional sermonizers will be considered a relic of past incompetence, and in their place will be men who are personal vitalizers and organizers.

11. Charity must be cleansed of poverty and sentimentality. You are not kind to the poor when you merely give them food, clothes, or money. You pauperize them when they most need energizing, organizing, and reorganizing.

A leading official of Sears, Roebuck & Company hates “welfare work.” He says the company won’t do any. Why? Because (1) the company refuses to pose as a philanthropist, socialist, or fairy godfather; (2) a self-respecting employee hates being “welfared” by his employer; (3) charity and business don’t go together; (4) the majority of welfare workers are officious, crude, paternalistic, and unscientific, out of place in business; and (5) employers need welfare work, perhaps of a different kind, as much as employees, and a one-sided program of such voluntary philanthropy is unwise and unfair.

This man claims that whatever improves the health, happiness, homelife, or future progress of the worker improves the work and should be considered a straight business proposition. He believes that commercialism should include idealism and fraternalism but without mention of the fact.

12. Industry will finally be the savior of the community. We hear much about a decadence of morality and increase of crime. Now the person who gets into mischief and goes astray was doing nothing, or the wrong thing, or the right thing badly. Put everybody in the work he loves, teach him how to do it well, and treat him and reward him fairly; then you take away the chief components of wrongdoing, which are idleness, irresponsibility, loneliness, and curiosity, aided and abetted by a consciousness of misfitness. Thomas A. Edison remarks that he never had time to break a moral law.

Even now, the brightest and best spot in the community of such corporations as U.S. Steel, National Cash Register Company, National City Bank, Heinz, McCormick, or du Pont is generally the community house or center founded, built, and maintained by the corporation. Happiness for a human being lies in his work, or nowhere. And the way to make people good is to make them know they are good for something.

Source: Edward E. Purinton, “Business as the Savior of the Community,” Independent, 16 April 1921.

See Also:"The Ancient Days Have Not Departed": Calvin Coolidge on the Spirituality of Commerce
"A Man's Thanksgiving": A Hymn to the God of Business