| I continue to seek out the best business history books I can find. While I love many of the books, I find relatively few that achieve all my own standards for business history. For example, I believe good business history – whether of a single company, industry, or place – should have maps (everything happens somewhere), imagery (preferably color), numbers (think market share or number of employees over time), biography (not just broad social trends), and design/architecture elements. Very few books live up to all these standards. Royal Dutch Shell published a very expensive multivolume history of itself that hit the mark, but it’s outside of most people’s budget. There is a good one on FW Woolworth, the dime store chain. I hope to review these in the future. And many of the best ones are out of print, although still available on www.abebooks.com
One new business history book, which meets almost all of my standards, is Beauty Imagined: A History of The Global Beauty Industry, by Geoffrey Jones (Oxford University Press, 2010). While I might not think I would be interested in beauty and fashion products, my overall fascination with consumers, their goods and the marketing of those goods, combined with the quality of this book to make it a real “page-turner” for me. Not only does Beauty Imagined contain a comprehensive history of the many segments of the industry, from soap to perfume, but it addresses design and style (with pictures both black and white and color), numbers (the back of the book lists the world’s largest beauty companies at different times from 1929 to 2008), and the people who made the industry what it is today.
I also have to say that author Geoffrey Jones is doing a great job of telling the story of business history. Coming from the UK, most of his earlier work focused on European businesses and industries. But since he joined the Harvard Business School as the Isidor Straus Chair of Business History, he seems to have broadened his view while keeping up his productivity. This is appropriate, since the Straus Chair was formerly held by the late Alfred Chandler, my favorite Business Historian and perhaps the greatest one ever. (And Straus himself was one of my retail heroes).
Whether you are interested in beauty products, beauty companies, or just want to be inspired and informed by the wonderful stories of business history, this is a great book. It is in stark contrast to a book about the “lessons of the airline industry” that came out from some Harvard profs a few months ago that was extremely disappointing. The airline industry, one of my favorites, is fascinating; but little can be learned from an industry that was so heavily regulated from its beginnings to 1978. On the other hand, the beauty business has been a great example of wide-open international competition from its outset. It is also particularly interesting because of all the women entrepreneurs, from Helena Rubinstein to Estee Lauder.