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How 3 of the World’s Oldest Companies Got Their Start

With so many companies declaring bankruptcy and going out of business, it’s hard to know who’s been around for centuries and who popped up yesterday. How well do you know the world’s oldest companies?

Outside of the major corporations, most businesses that have been around for generations get no love or attention. You’d be surprised to know just how long some of them have been around and where they got their humble beginnings from and have now evolved.

Well, no worries, friends! I’m going to take you on a fun, fact-filled historical journey you’re sure not to forget.

1. Zildjian Cymbal Co.

Founded 14 generations ago in Constantinople, this company’s history dates back all the way to 1623. It all started with an alchemist named Avedis Zildjian I (the first), who happened to discover an extremely musical metal alloy that created powerful and durable cymbals. Little did Zildjian know that his secret alloy formula would revolutionize music forever!

Zildjian Cymbal

Zildjian Cymbal

How does this relate to us today? I’ll tell you! Any musician would know this company right off the bat. Have you ever imagined listening to the drums without cymbals? Any type of music that involves the drums (i.e. rock, hip-hop, jazz, etc.) wouldn’t have as much of a beat — and not nearly as much flair — if that simple old cymbal wasn’t there.

The sultan at that time named him “Zildjian,” which is Armenian for “cymbal smith.” The family migrated to the U.S. in 1929, in time for Avedis Zildjian III to establish ties with hot new jazz drummers of the day. Once the people heard the hypnotic sound of the cymbal and drums, his empire could no longer be denied. His son Armand created a modern factory, and today his daughters Craigie (CEO) and Debbie run the company. I dare you to go try and find a drum set worth having that doesn’t have Zildjian cymbal!

2. Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Steel Company

This company got its humble beginnings back in the 19th century. It all started when philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant and former textile factory bobbin boy, constructed his first steel mill (Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, Pennsylvania) in the mid-1870s. Edgar Thomson Steel Works was profitable enough to permit Carnegie to purchase other nearby steel mills, thus the creating Carnegie Steel Company in 1892.

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie

Its headquarters were located in the Carnegie Building, an office building in downtown Pittsburgh. To flex some muscle and show off the steel in its construction, the building was built fifteen stories high and left uncovered for a full year. In the 1890s, this company became the most profitable and largest in the world and was eventually sold to the U.S. Steel Company for $250 million in 1901. That’s a hefty sum by today’s standards, let alone in the early 1900s! U.S. Steel had a name change along the way; it was renamed USX Corporation in 1991 but later went back to the United States Steel Corporation in 2001. (Side note: Andrew Carnegie ended up with a net wealth of around $350 million, much of which he contributed to charitable foundations. One of his most famous quotes is: “A man who dies rich dies disgraced”).

Imagine doing something you love and then managing to turn that work into a profitable business to support your family for generations! All in all, that is a very sweet deal.

3. Shirley Plantation

Shirley Plantation

Shirley Plantation

Shirley Plantation is Virginia’s oldest plantation; it was settled in 1613 and operated as a tobacco and grain farm until 1952. It is also the oldest family-owned business in North America! To say that this place has a rich history wouldn’t be doing it justice. The plantation was taken over in 1638 by Edward Hill and has been managed by his descendants ever since. Construction for the present-day mansion began around 1738, and it was converted to a tourist attraction in 1952. Since 1998, however, it has hosted weddings and corporate events as well under the 11th-generation operators.

The facility has beautiful grounds and great history to accompany it. It has evolved with the time and found a way to make a presence as a company and facility no matter what the generation calls for. You can’t be mad at that great business sense!

Before my search, I must admit that I had never heard of any of these companies (although I was kindly informed by my supervisor that I should have known who Zildjian Cymbal Company was — but then again, he knows a lot). It’s amazing to see which companies have such humble beginnings and which ones have adapted to the times in order to help their business evolve (and survive) in the business world today!

Quick takeaways from these 3 companies with staying power:

  • Innovate. Zildjian proved there’s always a way to expand upon an existing idea and turn it into something indispensable for future generations!
  • Dream big and don’t forget your roots. Andrew Carnegie wouldn’t have become a millionaire if he hadn’t followed his aspirations, and others wouldn’t have benefited from his good deeds.
  • Change with the times. Shirley Plantation probably wouldn’t be around today if it hadn’t evolved with modern times. Don’t be afraid of change.

Do you know where some of your favorite companies got their humble beginnings? What else can we learn from companies like these? Any you’d like to add to the list?


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  1. Jeff Porretto

    Ah Zildjian. The cause of so many glorioius headaches and beautiful noise. Before I knew anything about drums, I knew about Zildjian. But I had no friggin idea they’ve been around that long! Thanks for teaching me something awesome Candice!

  2. Candice J.

    You probably don’t know this but I’ve made it my personal mission in life (other than successfully raising my daughter) to teach you something new every day that you didn’t already know. You have NO IDEA how hard that is being that I’m scared you might be a human Britannica/Encyclopedia/Dictionary/Almanac etc. I’ve been failing miserably but I’m trying. So far the score is Candice: 2 Jeff:154816518. I’m going to catch up soon, I can feel it! 🙂

  3. Alex Brodsky

    Wow! I’m with Jeff on Zildjian. My dad was a drummer and I grew up playing guitar so I definitely knew about the company but I had no clue about any of their history! That’s an amazing innovation, without which the course of music history would have been completely altered.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Candice J.

      No problem Alex! It was actually really fun researching these companies because I learned so many things I didn’t know. I listen to music daily (if not hourly) and I never had any idea how large a role Zildjian played in the music world!

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    I love hearing how old plantations homes have survived into the 21st century. So many were lost in wars, fires, and changing economies that the ones that are around really had to work at it; especially in the case of the Shirley Plantation. Since it doesn’t seem like they had some kind of seriously-historical event to deem them a landmark, changing with the times would be the only way to continuously bring in business! Good for them!

    • Candice J.

      I know right! After looking at the pictures the estate looks BEAUTIFUL. It kept so much of its old school style with a little flair here and there. Its just amazing to see how a company can manage to reinvent themselves for centuries. I guess that’s the power of good marketing and business sense.

  5. Jaimie Smith

    This was a really cool post, Candice!
    The best takeaway, I think, was to Change with the times. That is great advice for those who have their own business, or anyone for that matter. I am one who really just does not like change, but you just have to learn to cope with it, especially if you have a business, and you want it to succeed!

    • Candice J.

      I don’t think most people really like change but it is part of the process. You can’t grow if you don’t know. And when its change for the better its a little bit easier to accept as consumers. Thanks for commenting!

  6. amy swanson

    I loved learning about the Carnegie family in history classes in school, and your summary really made want to dust off my history books again! I love his quote, for being such a rich man he knew what to do with his money! 🙂

    Great post, Candice!

    • Candice J.

      I had NO IDEA that a company could even sell for that much back in that time. That’s crazy! I wonder what it would be equivalent to in today’s time. Either way Mr. Carnegie made himself a nice batch of money. I love his quote as well because he’s right you can’t spend money when your dead! So you might as well donate it so that its put to use after your passing or inherit to family to support them for generations. No matter what you do, don’t just let it sit in bank going to waste!

  7. Jen

    I’m with you Candice, I’d never heard of any of these companies either, but I loved learning about their rich history.

    The take aways you mentioned are awesome! My favorite is “Change with the times”, because it’s just so darn true. In order to run a successful business you must adapt to the changing world around you.

    Great post, I’ve learned so much history today! 🙂

    • Candice J.

      I’m no big history buff but that was definitely fun history to learn. Changing with the times can no only adapt to a business perspective but a personal one as well. We all have to change with the time in someway to survive. It doesn’t have to be drastic but trying to survive in today’s world living like they did in 500 B.C. probably won’t work!

  8. Cybernetic SAM

    Wow this is really neat stuff — I knew a couple of these companies but that is really neat! Any new business could certainly benefit and learn a thing or two from these guys, as time has shown they certainly know how to stay afloat. Great post!

    • Candice J.

      I feel like if you are going to have a business before you get your license you should be required to take a class on the oldest and most successful companies. That way people have more of an idea of what they need to do and accomplish to keep their company around for the long haul.

  9. Rachel

    Great post, Candice! In an era when many huge companies only got started a few years ago (like YouTube and Twitter), it’s nice to read about businesses that have kept on going for *hundreds* of years despite the changing world around them. I think I liked reading about Zildjian the best — I didn’t recognize the company name until I saw the logo on the picture of the cymbal! Funny how simply seeing a word in a different font style/logo makes such a difference. 🙂

    • Candice J.

      I never knew about them before i researched them for this blog so you are already one step ahead of me! Its just nice to see companies have such a rich background with so many companies popping up these days.

  10. Eric

    Well, the poor guy never figured out how to make gold from other metals…but did manage to make an alloy that would create one very successful drum-maker. Never knew they went back that far, though! Interesting stuff, Candice.

    • Candice J.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  11. Jill Tooley

    Fascinating stuff, Candice! I knew that Zildjian had been around for at least a century, but I didn’t know it was established in the 1600s! That’s crazy.

    Andrew Carnegie is one of my personal heroes — he accomplished so much and started out with so little. It’s an inspiration to me. And the fact that he didn’t hoard his profits makes him stand out even more! He cared about people and he did everything in his power to help those who needed it. 🙂

  12. Richard

    One very old company that you didn’t mention is Cartiere Magnani, a paper manufacturer in Italy that has been in continuous operation since 1404. Their paper was used by the inventor of printing–Johannes Gutenberg–because the paper makers in Germany (where Gutenberg lived) couldn’t make paper of the quality he demanded.

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