A Small Business Blast from the Past

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books on business

The More Things Change… The More They Stay the Same

A couple of months ago, my son-in-law came over with a scruffy and tattered old book in his hand. “Hey Steve,” he said, “I found this book at a garage sale and thought you might like it. It looks sort of like The Small Business Bible of its day!”

The book, published over a hundred years ago in 1904, is called The Business Guide or Safe Methods of Business. It is a thorough and comprehensive overview of business, that’s for sure, covering everything from “Business manners,” “How to obtain wealth,” and even “Penmanship” to “How to find a mine, ” something called “Methods of Computation and Business Reckoning Tables” and  . . . “How stock is watered.”

Some things never change.

Indeed, while there is a lot in the old book that is, of course, out of date, what I found most interesting is how much of it was still surprisingly relevant. Consider the very first paragraph in the book:

Business, in every age of the world, has been the chief pioneer in the march of man’s civilization. Blessings everywhere follow its advancing footsteps.

If that is not as true today – when free enterprise and small business has swept the globe from Russia to China to India – I don’t know what is.

But what really caught my eye was a section called Safe Principles and Rules:

1. Remember that time is gold.

2. True intelligence is always modest.

3. Don’t cultivate a sense of over-smartness.

4. A man of honor respects his word as he does his note.

5. Shun lawsuits, and never take money risks you can avoid.

6. Never forget a favor, for ingratitude is the basest trait of man’s mean character.

7. Remember that the rich are generally plain, while rogues dress well and talk smoothly.

8. Remember that steady, earnest effort alone leads to wealth and high position.

9. Never be afraid to say no. Every successful man must have the backbone to assert his rights.

10. To industry and economy add self-reliance. Do not take too much advice, think for yourself. Independence will add vigor and inspiration to your labors.

Looking at 19th Century Values Through an Old Business Book

The book is really a fascinating analysis of 19th century mores and values. Again and again it makes the point that it is the content of your character that has more to do with your failure or success in life and business, rather than your schooling or creativity or timing or most anything else. Consider this passage:

Failure, a Premonition of Success – We owe much of our happiness to our mistakes and yet it is true that happiness is never found in failure . . . The very greatest things – great thoughts, great discoveries and inventions have usually been nurtured in hardship, suffering and poverty, and have not become established before chill failure seemed to lay its icy hand upon the victim’s aching brow.”

And what of success? This timeless treatise has plenty to say about that too.

Do not wait for, nor dream of, talent not in your possession. Use the talent you have. God meant you to be a success. Hold your ground and push hard. Watch opportunities. Be rigidly honest.

If you delight to sit around smoking cigarettes and telling shady stories on street corners and lounging on counters, it is hardly necessary for you to learn how to write a check for the chances are a thousand to one that you will never have a bank account.

And finally, I can rest assured that my chronic need to use spellcheck is the one thing for which I do not have to take personal responsibility and for which I am not to be blamed:

It is the fault of the English language that we have so many bad spellers.

Wisdom if ever I heard it.


Do you have a great story about an old book whose wisdom you found to still be prescient? Consider doing a guest book review today, in the Self-Employed Blog.