Public Displays of Affection
In an era of "Internet time," the past seems only that much more, well, outdated. But for entrepreneurs who have built their own museums, rummaging through history yields everlasting benefits
Retirement has not dimmed Russ Manoog's love affair with toilets. In June, the 65-year-old Manoog surrendered the elegantly appointed office from which he has, for more than two decades, transacted the business of Charles Manoog Inc., a 25-employee distributor of plumbing supplies in Worcester, Mass.
Departing through a showroom awash in snowy porcelain, he crossed the parking lot, climbed a brace of stairs, and passed through the door of a drab, two-story brick building identified in large letters as the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum. This is where Manoog, having handed the management reins to his son, now spends much of his time, presiding over an Ali Baba-esque trove of pipes and pumps, faucets and fixtures, toilets, tubs, and basins.
Manoog's metamorphosis from chief executive -- he still keeps an office at the company -- to museum trustee is the logical culmination of a life devoted to plumbing's proud legacy. The CEO's bond with his industry runs deeper than mere habit or hobby: this is, after all, a man who has inflamed physicians by asserting their inferiority to plumbers as defenders of the public health. His idea of a vacation: taking a toilet tour of England or a bidet tour of France. "This is not a glamour industry; you don't get people leaving computer companies to work at a plumbing-supply house," says Manoog, a dapper fellow with forceful eyebrows. "But people have been using some form of toilet since the day man was put on this earth. I'm sure by the second day he had to do something."
The American Sanitary Plumbing Museum, which chronicles the history of American plumbing from outhouse to our house, was established 21 years ago when Russ's father, Charles Manoog, was himself facing retirement from the company he had founded. Charles Manoog launched his company in 1927 in a store so tiny that its entire inventory could be displayed in one window; for the next 50-plus years the business both defined and -- to Charles's mind -- ennobled its founder's existence. A future apart from plumbing, even one cosseted by the rewards of a lifetime's industry, seemed a future adrift. "For people in small companies, particularly the people who started those companies, it's difficult to distinguish between 'This is my business' and 'This is my life,' " says Russ Manoog. "I don't know if my father had a passion for toilets, but he had a passion for his business. The museum is an expression of that."
On that level, the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum is hardly unique. In an era when company builders boast of doing deals in "Internet time" and when anxiety about the future fuels nostalgia for the present, reverence for the past can seem, well, outdated. But entrepreneurs like the Manoogs -- who make a practice of seeking out, preserving, and displaying artifacts that commemorate the history of their companies or industries -- aren't merely sentimental fogies. Rather, they're people who recognize the past's ability to infuse the present with meaning. History bestows heft and context, enriching and clarifying the story of a company's growth through narrative. For employees as well as customers, that can be especially important.
"Companies spend so much on mission statements and retreats and all that touchy-feely stuff that's supposed to develop loyalty and a meaningful work environment," says Edward O'Donnell, director of Heritedge Historical Enterprises, a three-year-old company in New York City that does contract historical research, exhibit creation, and consulting. "But they've missed the boat when it comes to the foundations. There's a moment in [the Tom Wolfe novel] The Bonfire of the Vanities when a child asks her father -- who's this bond broker -- 'Daddy, what exactly do you do?' And he tries to explain it to her, and he can't. These museums explain what their owners do to their families and their employees and their communities. They're all about identifying with the work."
Then there's the sense of comfort and connection that a known lineage bestows on the entrepreneurs themselves. Like the swarms of people who flock to Web sites devoted to the study of genealogy, company owners who fall into their life's work through happenstance or inheritance may feel rootless, even disaffected. Discoveries made in the course of unearthing a product's past -- it won the war; it saved the town; it was Teddy Roosevelt's favorite snack food -- do much to endear that product to its contemporary purveyors. "It's love for us," proclaims David Berghash, president of the Original American Kazoo Co., in describing the museum-building project that served to unite him with the small community in which his company is based. And Arthur Barry, who succeeded his father as CEO of Presto Galaxy Suction Cups Inc., first began researching his product's history three years ago. His proudest discovery to date? An 1866 patent for a "photographic dipper" -- a suction cup attached to a stick that was used by photographers to dip glass plates into caustic cleaning fluids. "That patent showed me that suction cups have a greater connection to my family than I knew," says Barry, whose $1.5-million company is based in Brooklyn, N.Y. "My father's father cleaned photographic plates for a living, and he must have used one of those. My father would have been flabbergasted if he'd known."
For Russ Manoog's father, it was a length of pipe that served as a conduit between his once and future avocations. To commemorate the founder's retirement, in 1979, someone presented him with a section of a 300-year-old wooden water main that had been excavated during the commercial development of Boston's historic Faneuil Hall. Soon the retiree began soliciting friends in the trade for any rare or curious fixtures they might have squirreled away. His collection took shape modestly, in the company's showroom; it's now housed in a 3,000-square-foot space that his son Russ designed in 1988, the year before his father died. Russ actually enlisted an architect friend to design some of the exhibits, which include a high-tanked toilet that once welcomed the bottoms of Philadelphia gentry, boxes of 150-year-old boudoir paper, and a vintage copper-lined steel bathtub with oak trim. In the museum's lower level, an iron toilet bowl designed in 1896 for jail-cell use (there's no seat for prisoners to detach and wield as a weapon) shares pride of place with an assortment of plumbers' tools so vast and miscellaneous it looks as if a Home Depot exploded.
That's how it looks to an outsider, anyway. Plumbers who stroll through the exhibits, Manoog says, invariably discover obscure and exciting facts that revivify their connection to their craft. "I want them to know how important they are and have always been," Manoog says. Bettejane "B. J." Manoog, Russ's wife of 36 years and the museum's administrative director, originally agreed to give guided tours on a short-term basis. That was 12 years ago, and she's still at it. "I give it as much time as I can," she says. "I love it here."
Kazoos are "a piece of Americana," says David Berghash, whose company produces 1.5 million kazoos a year.
In the early 1990s, while rooting around in corporate closets as part of his research for a book, consultant Jim Collins made a historic discovery. What he found was that most companies -- including the pretty good ones -- had no archives at all. Great companies, by contrast, kept everything.
"I still have Xeroxed copies of David Packard's initial draft of The H-P Way, typed on his own typewriter with his handwritten notes in the margins," says Collins, who coauthored Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, a seminal study of exceptional companies. "I have copies of George Merck's thoughts from the 1930s on how he was going to build his pharmaceuticals company." (No slouch in the historical-perspective department, Collins established his research lab in his former first-grade classroom.)
It stands to reason: CEOs with the impulse to preserve are more likely to build something worth preserving. (For those seeking to nurture that impulse, see "Past Company,"below.) "A company that builds one of these museums -- that pulls this stuff together for people to see and touch and reflect upon -- is saying that, in some way, it's more substantial than the norm," explains Collins, who is based in Boulder, Colo. "If you looked at other aspects of their business, you'd probably see a similar degree of care. It's their fundamental approach to life: it means they give a damn about what they do."
Not that museums like the American Sanitary Plumbing Museum exist to showcase the accomplishments of their founders. Although financed by a nonprofit family foundation and operated by the Manoogs, that museum has no overt association with Charles Manoog Inc. Indeed, Russ Manoog is adamant about asserting that his collection -- which is appreciated by some 400 visitors a year -- is a paean to an entire industry, not just one company. "We don't make anything, so we're not trying to represent our products, and we don't want people to view this as something to enhance our business," he says.
That sets the Manoogs' museum apart from the familiar breed of company museums that have long served as tourist bait, providing visitors with a mix of education (marketing), entertainment (marketing), and the chance to achieve unprecedented intimacy with cherished brands (marketing). Oral-hygiene enthusiasts passing through Fort Collins, Colo., can do obeisance at a shrine to the Teledyne Water Pik. Streetlights in the shape of lighters flank the road leading up to Zippo Manufacturing Co.'s museum, in Bradford, Pa. However illuminating they may turn out to be, such storehouses start life as brand-building extensions of a company's headquarters and could be located anywhere.
But the kazoo museum couldn't exist anywhere but in Eden, N.Y., a largely agricultural town near Buffalo. Or so David Berghash learned back in 1986, when he first got the notion of creating a museum around the small, submarine-shaped musical instrument. That was a year after the 75-employee family business of which he is president, Brimms Inc., acquired the Original American Kazoo Co., the first (and still the only) company to make the metal kazoo -- which Berghash likes to call the sole musical instrument born in the United States. (The Smithsonian begs to differ, citing the competing claims of the banjo and the electric guitar.) When he discovered the kazoo's distinctive American heritage, "I thought it was the coolest thing in the world," says Berghash, who must get tired of hearing that he looks like actor Nathan Lane. "It changed the whole dynamic for me."
What he's referring to is his own attitudinal about-face regarding the kazoo company, which he eventually agreed to run for his father after trying a couple of ventures of his own. Now an ardent kazoo crusader, Berghash traces his conversion to a 1985 pilgrimage during which he accompanied his kazoos to the New York Toy Fair. With no hot new product to sell, Berghash had expected to weather the event in relative anonymity. Instead he found himself spotlighted by the glow of other attendees' nostalgia. "People kept coming up to me and saying, 'Do you know what you have here? It's an American icon!' " says Berghash, whose company produces 1.5 million kazoos a year. "I realized that we had accepted responsibility for a piece of Americana. We could either document it, or we could just let the story disappear."
After that, he divided his time between coming up with new kazoo lines and trying to learn about the instrument's older incarnations. On the latter subject Original American Kazoo's records were no help, so he turned to the Smithsonian and to the author of the only published treatise on kazoos. He got some answers to questions about the history of the company -- When did it switch from being a metal-parts plant to a kazoo manufacturer? What were some of the earliest instruments it produced? -- from employees and from some of the 7,000 or so residents of Eden who stopped by the company to reminisce. "Someone would say, 'Oh, my mom used to work here. Now she's over at the nursing home. Let me ask her,' " recalls Berghash. "We called it the Talmud -- the oral tradition. It was all we had to go on."
Along with their stories, the town's residents also brought him their old kazoos, which he soon turned into museum exhibits. They contributed wooden kazoos, model-airplane kazoos, kazoos with foghorn-shaped amplifiers, kazoos disguised as liquor bottles (commemorating the end of Prohibition), and large kazoos made to look like saxophones, clarinets, and other musical instruments. "We couldn't figure out what those were for, but then we interviewed some people in their seventies who said they were popular at parties back in the 1920s," says Berghash. "It was their version of karaoke." The liquor-bottle models, he imagines, are the most valuable, but he hasn't a clue about how much any of it is worth. "I keep hoping Antiques Roadshow will come through here so I can find out," he says, referring to the public-television show.
As the collection grew, Berghash turned over the chore of building glass display cases to his 16 employees. Meanwhile, he labored with his in-house copywriter to create an illustrated time line. Among other items, the two hunted down photos of the company's early owners, 19th-century Sears & Roebuck catalogs featuring kazoos, and a 1928 letter from a lawyer requesting $21 to process a patent for "an improvement in musical toys or instruments." Where no artifacts existed, they fudged: a comb, a blade of grass, and a Chiclets packet represent primitive kazoos. Several aging photos of unidentified people (presumably former employees) performing unidentified activities (presumably related to the manufacturing of kazoos) were unearthed from the company's antediluvian file cabinets. "The copywriter would think of something," notes Berghash, referring to the captions that now accompany the photos.
These days, Berghash immerses himself in kazoo history whenever he can put aside his work at the dominant divisions of Brimms, which manufactures everything from denture cleaners to athletic mouth guards to cosmetic powders. He'll slip away, entering the candy-box-pretty Victorian house that shelters both the factory and the shrine to his company's least profitable product.
"When I look back at the different kinds of kazoos this company made over the years, I realize the early owners were probably a lot like me," Berghash says, straining to be heard above the kachunk, kachunk of the vintage dye presses. "They were serious businessmen who knew when to stop being serious."
If Arthur Barry knows when to stop being serious, he doesn't show it. The tall, mustachioed CEO of Presto Galaxy Suction Cups speaks in a voice so devoid of inflection that it's impossible to detect the presence, or absence, of irony. "If I was to sell metal bushings or ball bearings, it might not be so exciting," intones Barry. "But when I look around here and see all the ways people have thought of to use suction cups, I think that's very exciting."
Aside from Presto Galaxy's eight employees, few people know that a suction-cup museum exists inside Barry's long, narrow office in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the walls have been coated with plastic so that he can display his treasures. But the collection's lack of renown doesn't bother its creator. The museum fulfills its purpose, namely to provide Barry with inspiration and reassurance that his job is something worth doing. As such, it is either the ultimate celebration of beauty in the mundane or a bravura demonstration of self-delusion.
Either way, it keeps Barry going.
Few people know that the suction-cup museum exists. But that doesn't bother its creator.
Barry's exhibits -- which include an assortment of radar-detector and soap-dish holders; a rare British cup powerful enough to support large sheets of glass; and delicate, three-quarter-inch devices for removing glass eyeballs from their sockets -- may not send most pulses racing. Ditto for the dozen or so framed patents dating from 1866 to 1932 for suction cups that incorporate wire hooks, suction cups used to hold up cards, and suction cups that turn door handles. But Barry gets many of his new-product ideas by just staring at his surroundings. "My father used to come up with most of the ideas, but now I'm doing all of it," says Barry, who became CEO of the company when his father died, three years ago. "If I don't come up with new products, I don't stay in business. And seeing things that other people have come up with encourages me. It helps."
While his father was still alive, Barry had not only less motivation to delve into his stock-in-trade but also less opportunity. "My father was a very conservative businessman," Barry says. "When I took the reins, I was able to indulge my own interest in history and start doing research." That research began with a question that had been nagging Barry -- a former teacher in the New York City public schools -- since 1981, when he and his father shifted their company's emphasis from bird feeders to the burpable plastic circles that clamped bird feeders to windows. "I had always wanted to find out what the first commercial use of suction cups was," he says. "My theory was that it might have been the toilet-bowl plunger."
The stacks of the New York Public Library proved shamefully deficient in related texts, but Barry did find in a history of bathrooms a reference to the medieval practice of "cupping": placing glass cups on the skin to bring blood to the surface. "When I found out about cupping, it was like a bolt of lightning," he says. "Cupping! My god, suction cups have almost the same history as magnets!" With that rich historical precedent confirmed -- "Hippocrates probably used cupping to treat people," he theorizes -- Barry soon found an illustration of the procedure and mounted it on a wall of what later would become his museum. It was soon joined by another discovery: an illustration of an experiment performed in the 1600s in which 16 horses harnessed to a couple of metal suction cups attempted to break the cups' seal. "They couldn't do it," says Barry with satisfaction.
Aside from the patents and a few framed news clippings detailing the exploits of Dan Goodwin, a human fly who used suction cups to scale Chicago's Sears Tower, most of Barry's exhibits are applications of his own products and those of his competitors. (Actually, Presto Galaxy has only one significant competitor, a company toward which Barry harbors such bad blood that even cupping probably couldn't cure it.) Many of the suction cups are significant for their design -- soccer balls, children's faces, and tropical scenes among them. Barry holds the patent on decorative suction cups.
Some of the exhibit items -- including kid's-meal prizes from fast-food chains -- were donated by Presto Galaxy's general manager; the rest Barry or his customers tracked down, ordering them either from catalogs or online. "The Internet is such a wonderful tool for finding out about these things," he says, flourishing a printout that identifies such potential acquisitions as a belt made of suction cups designed to melt away fat. Barry has decked out his own Web site ( www.suctioncupsinc.com) with the science and history of suction cups, including reproductions of some of his prized illustrations. "I don't really expect people to come to my office and look at what I have," says the CEO. "But if people want to learn about suction cups, they won't have to go through what I did."
He's serious -- as usual. After all, it's natural for Barry to assume that what he's found will someday prove useful -- not just to grade-school students researching science projects or dilettantes in the art of clamping but to a future version of himself, an entrepreneur who cherishes what he sells. Such people still exist, despite the forces that strain their fierce devotion: professional mobility, industry consolidation, and the dominance of high-technology products that are, by their nature, less lovable.
Craig Orr, an archivist at the National Museum of American History, in Washington, D.C., says he hears from about 25 small companies every year, offering their collections to his museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. "Often these companies just have a couple of glass cases, a little exhibit space, a spare room set aside somewhere," says Orr. "Sometimes it's more. I remember visiting Pratt, Read & Co., in Ivoryton, Conn., which made piano keys. The piano trade had fallen on hard times, and the company had lost its lease and was going out of business. They had furnished an entire floor of their headquarters with mementos of the ivory trade and the products they made. They had objects, photographs, and archival records. It was wonderful. We took it all."
Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.
Reconstructing Your Business History
Once you've decided that the world deserves to know more about your company's rich legacy, there's still one key question to consider: How much will you mind being locked inside a glass case all day?
After all, it's not unusual for a small company to find that its best -- and sometimes only -- archives reside inside the brain of its founder and earliest employees. That's hardly surprising. These days executives purge the past by hiring consultants to help them reduce clutter, and businesses unload outdated products and equipment online.
But just because a company hasn't been scrupulous about retaining records and artifacts doesn't mean it can't cobble together at least a glass case's worth of material. Bruce Brumberg, who visited company museums in the process of researching Watch It Made in the U.S.A., a book he coauthored in 1994, advises restoration-minded CEOs to ask longtime employees, customers, and vendors for anything they might have saved. Advertising agencies, for example, might still have the art from early campaigns; a distributor might have kept some original packaging.
If a company's trail is just too faint to follow, building an industry museum may be a better option, says Edward O'Donnell, director of Heritedge Historical Enterprises, a contract historical consulting firm. "The idea is to place your company in the time line of the greater market," says O'Donnell. "Your company was founded in 1941. What else was going on in 1941, and why was it an important period?"
According to O'Donnell, there are at least 20 large image and photo archives that sell historical photos for $100 or so each. In addition, libraries frequently have vintage newspapers and other publications, and such material is also available on the Web. "You might even find early examples of products on eBay," O'Donnell says.
Please e-mail your comments to email@example.com.