Horses and Newspapers

Products do disappear, and so do the companies that make them

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There's a small show at the Building Museum in Washington called House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage. I know, it sounds like a joke, but trust me, it’s interesting. It's a reminder of how completely—and how quickly--the automobile transformed life.  The parking garage is just one example. The stop sign wasn’t invented until 1915. Before then, the streets were essentially unregulated free-for-alls. At the turn of the last century, there were 175,000 horses dropping manure on the streets of New York City alone. In 1899 the largest auto company in the world at the time (Benz, of Germany) produced 572 cars. Cars passed horses in number by the early teens. In 1915, American companies were producing almost a million cars a year. By the 1920s the horses were pretty much gone.

In his 2004 book, The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America, historian Thomas A. Kinney amusingly traces the decline of the horse carriage industry through the decline of the annual convention of its trade association—the Carriage Builders National Association--from a huge, multi-day affair with hundreds of products on display and thousands of attendees  to a sad little reunion with no official business to conduct. There are plenty of head-in-the-sand quotations from buggy manufacturers about how automobiles are just a trend, or unsuitable for women, or a rich man’s plaything that will never suit the middle class, and so on.

Kinney writes: "As wagons and carriages assumed the role of quaint reminders of a horsy past, the once-mighty industry that built them dispersed into the making of automobile parts and accessories, took up the manufacture of entirely unrelated items, or simply paid their employees and closed their doors forever."  From beginning to end, it took about 30 years.

I was led to Kinney’s book by a January column in the New York Times by Randall Stross, about the buggy whip—often used as an example of as a business that died because it didn’t adapt. Stross, like me, was interested in any possible comparison with the newspaper industry. He said the whole buggy whip analogy originated in a famous 1960 Harvard Business Review essay by a marketing guru named Theodore Levitt. The article was called “Marketing Myopia.” Levitt argued that the buggy whip manufacturers’ mistake was thinking of themselves as being in the buggy whip business instead of in the transportation business. His moral was that companies should concentrate on customers’ needs.

Like a lot of fancy academic business theorizing, this seems comically tautological. If you want your customers to buy what you sell, you must sell them something they wish to buy. And Levitt’s specific examples don’t do a lot to redeem his theory. He accuses the petroleum industry of failing to predict the inevitable reduction in demand for energy, and mocks a group of businessmen he spoke to for thinking that the electronics industry had a great future. Stross’s conclusion is that Levitt was wrong about buggy whips: "buggy whip makers never had a fighting chance."

So what about newspapers? It's 15 years since the Washington Post first became available nationally through a service called Digital Ink. If we think of that moment as equivalent to 1908, the year Ford started producing the Model T, it is now 1923 for newspapers. That is good news and bad news. The good news is that newspapers are doing better than horse and buggy manufacturers, who were mostly gone by then. The bad news is a reminder that products do disappear, and so do the companies that make them. It may be unthinkable, but it’s not impossible.

Further Reading

"Failing Like a Buggy Whip Maker? Better Check Your Simile," Randall Stross, New York Times, January 10, 2010

The Carriage Trade: Making Horse-Drawn Vehicles in America (2004), Thomas A. Kinney

"House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage," at the Building Museum, Washington DC, through July 11.

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