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Texas ISD School Guide
Texas ISD School Guide

Short Stories for Teachers

Unexpected origins of big companies
By:Cindy Perman

Some companies spring from a single idea or a single innovation, while others take a detour.

Some of the biggest brands and biggest companies today were created from a detour.

Originally, they might have made textiles, soap or weapons. In at least one case, they were kind of a cult before planting their corporate roots.

Today, those stories have largely trailed off , and we know them as powerhouses in retail, manufacturing and technology.

Here are the unusual orgins of some big companies:

Tiffany & Co.

We know it as an icon of luxurious jewelry, but Tiffany actually started out as a stationery store when Charles Lewis Tiffany and Teddy Young founded the company in 1837. But they did tip their hats to the future, calling the company a "stationery and fancy goods emporium." The distinctive blue box was introduced in the first year and has been used ever since. Fancy, indeed!

Procter & Gamble

Procter & Gamble was created by two sons-in-law — William Procter, a candle maker, and James Gamble, a soap maker — in 1837. The two men married sisters , and when their father-in-law, Alexander Norris, saw that they were competing for the same raw materials, he suggested they team up. The company was founded in Cincinnati, at the time a meatpacking centre, and therefore offered an abundant supply of the fat and oil they needed to make their soaps and candles. Today, Procter & Gamble still make s some soap products like Tide laundry detergent and Dawn dishwashing liquid , but they also make a variety of other products , including Pampers diapers, Bounty paper towels and Pringles chips.


Today we know Raytheon as defense giant , but it was actually founded as something decidedly non-aggressive — a refrigerator maker. The company was launched in 1922 by two former Tufts engineering college roommates, Laurence K. Marshall and Vannevar Bush, along with a young scientist, Charles G. Smith. This was just after World War I, as the nation was booming with electricity, telephone lines , and hope. They never got their model for the refrigerator off the ground , but did wind up changing American lives anyway: They came up with the plug-in radio (as opposed to battery-operated), as well as the first commercial microwave oven, miniature tubes for hearing aids , and the first successful missile-guidance system.


Nokia, now known as one of the top mobile-phone makers, actually started out as a paper mill when the company was founded in 1865 by Fredrik Idestam. It wasn't until 1960 that the company established an electronics department, which sold and operated computers. In 1962, it created a pulse analyzer for nuclear power plants. It wasn't until the late 1970s that it started making phone equipment. Nokia launched its Mobira Talkman portable phone in 1984.


DuPont, now famous for Teflon nonstick cooking pans, Corian countertops , and the durable fabric Kevlar, actually started out as an explosives company in 1802. At the turn of the next century, it shifted its focus to chemicals, materials and energy. Today, the company works in a wide variety of areas, including food and nutrition, health care, apparel, safety and security, construction, electronics and transportation.


Ding-dong! Avon calling. Actually, when Avon first started calling in 1886, salespeople were knocking on people's doors to sell them books. As a way to entice women to buy his books, founder David H. McConnell brought them perfume. Like any great businessman, he figured out how to play to his strengths and got into the perfume business. The company's name was changed to Avon Products in 1939. In his door-to-door travels, he saw women struggling to make ends meet and recognized that many of them were natural salespeople. So, he started hiring them to go door to door for him.


The formula for Coca-Cola was created by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886. It was a fragrant, caramel-colored liquid. He took it to Jacobs' Pharmacy a few doors down , where it was combined with carbonated water. Pemberton's bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, named the mixture Coca-Cola , writing the words in his distinct handwriting — which is the way you see the Coca-Cola logo on the side of the can today. It was a hit with customers but nowhere near the way it is today: Back then, they sold just nine glasses of Coca-Cola a day at five cents a pop. Today, they sell millions of cans and bottles every day.

Oneida Silverware

Oneida Silverware has perhaps the strangest origin: It was born out of a religion/cult in Oneida, N . Y. John Humphrey Noyes founded the religion known as Perfectionism in 1848. As part of this "perfect" religion, every member of the religion/cult was married to every member of the opposite sex in the group. And so, Noyes and his 300 followers lived in a 93,000 square foot mansion as one big happy family. The community disbanded in 1879 , but it was difficult for them to integrate back into society. So the community reorganized into what was called a "joint-stock company" which later became Oneida, Ltd. — and went on to sell one of the best-known brands of silverware in the world. Who knew your flatware had such a law-breaking past?!


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