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.

There are many companies out there with a long history! We’ve been shopping at them for centuries and have come to recognize their brands. The ones on this list are lesser known, but just as impactful.

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