Getting my Fortune read

A general view of atmosphere during the FORTUNE Breakfast and Conversation 

The cover of the October, 1948 issue of Fortune

A buddy of mine in California somehow stumbled across a vintage piece of business history: a copy of Fortune magazine from 1948. A piece about Business and Ethics stood out for him, and instead of sending me a scan of the article, my pal located a second copy of the old magazine and sent the whole thing.

Lucky for me. That 66 year-old Fortune is a striking document. First of all, the ads: loads of farm equipment for sale in an economy where agriculture still dominated. More than a half century before Amazon, there's the Sears catalog, which, an ad reveals, offers the option of buying a Kaiser automobile mail order. There is a half-baked idea from a famous economist for a "Magic Circle": a spot toward the middle of the United States — think Missouri and Oklahoma  where factories could be relocated to keep them the furthest away from Russian nuclear bombs. The Fortune editors, even in real time, were skeptical.

I shared the old magazine with Marketplace's economics expert, Chris Farrell, who was equally fascinated. Chris noted how a big chunk of its content addressed issues surrounding labor unions that played such a greater role in the US economy in the immediate post-war years than they do now. Chris also noted the near-absence of women in this publication for businessmen.

Click the media player above to hear Marketplace economics correspondent Chris Farrell in conversation with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio.

It was, however, that business ethics piece that stood out as so oddly quaint and prescient at the same time. Its author was a British-born academic, William Orton of Smith College, who tried to demolish what must have been a pervasive view that business is business and ethics is a subject for Sunday sermons. These days we call it "fiduciary responsibility" or "shareholder value," but that forced separation isn't hard to find in boardrooms to this day. While many business professionals have the impulse to act ethically, Orton wrote, they may be worried that stockholders or banks see ethical/moral considerations as "unbusinesseslike" and would "kick," meaning put up a fuss if ethical issues were added to the mix. 

Orton sounds like he could have been writing today in other ways. He brings up inequality and notes a division in the economy between the "makers" (the manufacturers and innovators) and the "takers" who consume these creations or serve as middlemen.

My colleague Chris was especially taken by a point Orton makes about the need to be sure that what makes sense from a business or economics point of view also makes sense from the perspective of right and wrong. Orton uses this example: Say an orchestra comes to town for some performances but a schoolteacher isn't paid enough to afford the tickets. This, Orton argues, is not a good economy and is not a good society. Ethics and business cannot be separate.

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Before we put down this 1948 copy of Fortune, one last highlight. The magazine included a feature story about what one might regard as America's first hipster or boutique hotel.  It was just being opened in Cincinnati at the time of publication and was described as a triumph of mid-century design. This hotel, judging from the pictures, was the Fifties before the Fifties actually occurred. Among its Modernist touches, it featured an original mural by the artist Joan Miro and a big mobile by Alexander Calder. I wondered how the hotel was doing now, in 2014. 

Not well. The hotel closed in 2008 and although some historic preservationists in Ohio would love to save it, much of its Modernist coolness had long ago been stripped away. I was shocked to see the Miro had been removed from the premises, replaced by wood paneling. At least that had a decent outcome: the 30 foot-wide piece is now in the custody of the Cincinnati Art Museum, along with the Calder. Sadly, during this era of hipster hotels, the Terrace Plaza is regarded as too big to be "boutique." 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

The cover of the October, 1948 issue of Fortune

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