The origins of some of the world’s most iconic companies are often shrouded in myth and legend, with stories of innovation, perseverance, and luck. But what did these companies really look like in their early days?
Thanks to the power of photography, we can now glimpse into the past and explore the early days of some of the most recognizable brands in the world.
From the classic Coca-Cola to the American retail giant Sears, from the motorcycle icon Harley-Davidson, from the fast-food chains McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, to the tech giants Microsoft, and Amazon – this article will take you on a visual journey back in time to the early days of these companies.
Whether you’re a business enthusiast or a history buff, these vintage photos are sure to captivate and inspire. Join us as we take a trip down memory lane and explore the early days of some of the most well-known and beloved brands in the world.
J.C. Penney (1902)
The original JCPenney store location in Kemmerer, Wyoming, was still named the Golden Rule Store before the 1913 name change.
It also shows the Opera House Saloon and a muddy street out front, with men apparently shoveling. Telegraph poles stand to the left, and horses with a cart stand to the left foreground.
Founded in 1902 by James Cash Penney, the company began as a small dry goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. Penney had a vision of creating a store that offered high-quality merchandise at affordable prices, with a focus on customer service.
This vision proved successful, and JCPenney quickly expanded, opening additional stores in Wyoming and neighboring states.
During the Great Depression, JCPenney’s commitment to providing affordable goods helped the company thrive while other businesses struggled.
The company’s reputation for offering dependable merchandise at reasonable prices earned it the nickname “The Golden Rule Store,” reflecting Penney’s philosophy of treating others as he would like to be treated.
Harley-Davidson’s First Factory (1903)
Harley-Davidson’s first location was a backyard shed where William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson built three motorcycles in 1903.
Arthur Davidson’s father was a cabinet maker and he constructed the shed in the Davidson backyard: it was 10 ft × 15 ft (3.0 m × 4.6 m).
In 1904 the shed size was doubled with an addition and the fledgling company produced 8 motorcycles. In 1905 the shed size was doubled again with another addition.
By the end of 1905 Harley and Davidson applied for and received a loan to build a factory. They purchased land at what is now Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and began constructing the 1906 Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Factory Building.
Highland Park Ford Plant (1910)
The Ford assembly line system is a groundbreaking production system that revolutionized the manufacturing industry.
It was developed by Henry Ford in the 1910s, as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs in the production of automobiles.
Before the introduction of the assembly line, automobile production was a slow and labor-intensive process, with each car being assembled by skilled workers.
Ford’s innovation was to create a system in which workers performed repetitive tasks on a moving conveyor belt, with each worker specializing in a single task.
This system allowed for a dramatic increase in production speed, as well as a reduction in labor costs. Ford’s assembly line also paved the way for other industries to adopt similar production methods, leading to a shift towards mass production and standardization in manufacturing.
Coca-Cola in Dublin, Georgia (1912)
Originally marketed as a temperance drink and intended as a patent medicine, it was invented in the late 19th century by John Stith Pemberton in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1888, Pemberton sold Coca-Cola’s ownership rights to Asa Griggs Candler, a businessman, whose marketing tactics led Coca-Cola to its dominance of the global soft-drink market throughout the 20th and 21st century.
The drink’s name refers to two of its original ingredients: coca leaves and kola nuts (a source of caffeine). The current formula of Coca-Cola remains a closely guarded trade secret; however, a variety of reported recipes and experimental recreations have been published.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. was founded in 1886 by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck as a mail-order company. The duo started their venture with a small investment of $5,000, selling watches and jewelry.
In the following years, Sears and Roebuck expanded their inventory, offering everything from clothing and home goods to farm equipment and automobiles.
By the early 20th century, Sears had become one of the largest retailers in the United States, with a catalog that was eagerly anticipated by millions of Americans.
The company’s success was due in large part to its innovative approach to marketing and sales. Sears developed a sophisticated direct-mail system, which allowed customers to order products from the comfort of their own homes, and a network of regional warehouses, which made it possible to deliver goods quickly and efficiently.
In 1925, Sears opened its first retail store, and over the next few decades, the company continued to expand its physical footprint, eventually becoming a fixture in shopping malls across the country.
Boeing Air Transport (1930)
Boeing Air Transport (BAT) was an airline company that was a predecessor to the modern-day United Airlines. It was established in 1927, when the Boeing Company, which had been manufacturing airplanes since 1916, decided to enter the airline industry.
Initially, BAT was a subsidiary of the Boeing Company, which provided it with a fleet of aircraft, including the Boeing 40A biplane.
The airline’s first route was between San Francisco and Chicago, and it quickly gained a reputation for reliability and efficiency.
In 1929, BAT merged with two other airlines, National Air Transport and Pacific Air Transport, to form United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UATC), which was later renamed United Airlines.
First Dairy Queen in Illinois (1940)
The Dairy Queen story begins in 1938, two years before the restaurant opened, with the dawn of soft-serve ice cream.
The inventors, J.F. McCullough and his son Alex convinced ice cream man Sherb Noble to sell it at his shop in Kankakee, Illinois. It was an immediate hit. They served 1,600 customers in two hours at an all-you-can-eat ice cream sale.
Noble and the McCulloughs opened the first Dairy Queen store on June 22, 1940, along historic Route 66 in Joliet, Illinois. Though no longer serving customers, the site still stands as a local landmark.
Capitol Records First Location (1940s)
Capitol Records is one of the most iconic record labels in the world, known for its roster of legendary artists and groundbreaking albums.
The label was founded in 1942 by Johnny Mercer, a popular songwriter and performer, and songwriter-producer Buddy DeSylva.
In its early years, Capitol Records focused on producing and promoting popular music, including jazz, swing, and big band.
The label’s first big hit came in 1943 with the release of “Cow Cow Boogie,” a song by Mercer and his band, the Pied Pipers. The song became a chart-topping success and set the stage for Capitol’s future success in the music industry.
Over the next few decades, Capitol Records continued to expand its roster of artists, signing some of the biggest names in music, including Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. The label also embraced new genres and styles of music, helping to popularize rock and roll in the 1950s and 1960s.
First Carl’s Jr Hot Dog (1941)
Carl’s Jr. is a well-known fast-food chain that was founded in 1941 by Carl Karcher in Los Angeles, California.
However, the company’s origins can be traced back even further to 1940, when Karcher and his wife Margaret opened a hot dog stand called Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue in the same location where Carl’s Jr. would later be established.
The hot dog stand was a small, family-owned business that specialized in serving hot dogs and chili dogs to customers.
Karcher was known for his hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, and he quickly built up a loyal customer base.
In 1941, Karcher and his business partner, John Galardi, decided to expand their menu and began serving hamburgers as well as hot dogs.
They also changed the name of the business to Carl’s Jr., which was meant to signify that the burgers were bigger and better than those served at other fast-food restaurants.
Burger King (1953)
The predecessor to Burger King was founded in 1953 in Jacksonville, Florida, as Insta-Burger King. After visiting the McDonald brothers’ original store location in San Bernardino, California, the founders and owners (Keith J. Kramer and his wife’s uncle Matthew Burns), who had purchased the rights to two pieces of equipment called “Insta-machines”, opened their first restaurants.
Their production model was based on one of the machines they had acquired, an oven called the “Insta-Broiler”. This strategy proved to be so successful that they later required all of their franchises to use the device.
After the company faltered in 1959, it was purchased by its Miami, Florida, franchisees, James McLamore and David R. Edgerton.
They initiated a corporate restructuring of the chain, first renaming the company Burger King. They ran the company as an independent entity for eight years (eventually expanding to over 250 locations in the United States), before selling it to the Pillsbury Company in 1967.
Walt Disney at Disneyland (1955)
Disneyland was founded by Walt Disney, a legendary figure in the entertainment industry, and opened its doors to the public on July 17, 1955.
It was the first theme park of its kind, featuring multiple themed areas, rides, and attractions all in one location. The park was designed as a place where families could come and enjoy a day of fun and adventure, and it quickly became a beloved destination for people of all ages.
The early years of Disneyland were marked by tremendous creativity and innovation, as Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers worked tirelessly to create new attractions and experiences for visitors.
Some of the park’s most iconic rides, including the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Disneyland Monorail, were introduced in the early years of the park’s operation.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, was founded in 1962 by Sam Walton in Bentonville, Arkansas. In its early years, Walmart was a small retail store that focused on selling discount goods to local consumers.
Walton’s business philosophy was centered around offering customers low prices, convenience, and excellent customer service.
He believed in buying in bulk and passing on the savings to customers. This approach allowed Walmart to undercut the prices of its competitors and quickly gain market share.
The first Walmart store opened in Rogers, Arkansas, and within a few years, Walton had expanded his chain to 24 stores across Arkansas. In 1968, Walmart went public and raised $5 million to fund further expansion.
During the 1970s, Walmart expanded outside of Arkansas, opening stores in neighboring states such as Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. By 1979, the company had over 270 stores and had become a national retailer.
Taco Bell (1962)
Taco Bell was founded by Glen Bell, an entrepreneur who first opened a hot dog stand called Bell’s Drive-In in San Bernardino, California, in 1948.
Bell watched long lines of customers at a Mexican restaurant called the Mitla Cafe, located across the street, which became famous among residents for its hard-shelled tacos.
Bell attempted to reverse-engineer the recipe, and eventually the owners allowed him to see how the tacos were made.
He took what he had learned and opened a new stand in 1951. The name underwent several changes, from Taco-Tia through El Taco, before settling on Taco Bell.
The First Arby’s (1964)
Arby’s is a fast-food chain specializing in roast beef sandwiches that was founded in 1964 in Boardman, Ohio, by Forrest and Leroy Raffel. The name “Arby’s” stands for “RB,” which stands for roast beef, the chain’s signature menu item.
The Raffel brothers saw an opportunity to capitalize on the lack of fast-food options that offered roast beef sandwiches. They developed a unique recipe for slow-roasted beef that was sliced thin and served on a toasted bun with their signature Arby’s Sauce.
The first Arby’s location was a drive-in restaurant that quickly gained popularity. The chain’s success was driven by its focus on high-quality ingredients and customer service.
The Raffel brothers aimed to create a fast-food experience that felt more like a sit-down restaurant, with friendly service and fresh, made-to-order sandwiches.
In the 1970s, Arby’s expanded rapidly, opening hundreds of locations across the United States. The chain also expanded its menu, adding items such as curly fries, chicken sandwiches, and market-fresh salads.
TGI Friday’s (1965)
Alan Stillman opened the first TGI Fridays restaurant in 1965, in New York. He lived on 63rd Street between First and York, in a neighborhood with many airline stewardesses, fashion models, secretaries, and other young, single people on the East Side of Manhattan near the Queensboro Bridge on the corner of East 63rd and 1st Avenue, and hoped that opening a bar would help him meet women.
At the time, Stillman’s choices for socializing were non-public cocktail parties or “guys’ beer-drinking hangout” bars that women usually would not visit; he recalled that “there was no public place for people between, say, twenty-three to thirty-seven years old, to meet.”
He sought to recreate the comfortable cocktail party atmosphere in public despite having no experience in the restaurant business.
Subway was founded by Fred DeLuca and financed by Peter Buck in 1965 as Pete’s Super Submarines in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
After several name changes in the beginning years, it was finally renamed Subway in 1972, and a franchise operation began in 1974 with a second restaurant in Wallingford, Connecticut. Since then, it has expanded to become a global franchise.
Subway serves an array of topping choices, allowing the customer to choose which toppings are included in their sandwich. The longtime Subway slogan, “Eat Fresh”, is intended to indicate the fresh ingredients that are used in their sandwiches.
Wendy’s “old-fashioned” hamburgers were inspired by Dave Thomas’s trips to Kewpee Hamburgers in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Kewpee sold square hamburgers and thick malt shakes.
Thomas founded Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 and featured square patties with corners that stuck out from the sides of the circular bun, giving the impression of an abundance of good quality meat.
Thomas named the restaurant after his fourth child Melinda Lou “Wendy” Thomas. Photographs of her were on display at the original Wendy’s restaurant until it closed.
In his autobiography, Thomas wrote that he regretted naming the restaurant after his daughter because once it became a fast food empire she “lost some of her privacy” with many people assuming she was the official company spokesperson.
Virgin Records (1971)
Virgin Records was originally founded as a British independent record label in 1972 by entrepreneurs Richard Branson, Simon Draper, Nik Powell, and musician Tom Newman.
It grew to be a worldwide success over time, with the success of platinum performers Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Devo, Tangerine Dream, Genesis, Phil Collins, OMD, the Human League, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Lenny Kravitz, the Sex Pistols, and Mike Oldfield among others, meaning that by the time it was sold, it was regarded as a major label, alongside other large international independents such as A&M and Island Records.
Starbucks was founded in 1971 by Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
During the early 1980s, they sold the company to Howard Schultz who – after a business trip to Milan, Italy – decided to convert the coffee bean store into a coffee shop serving espresso-based drinks.
As chief executive officer from 1986 to 2000, Schultz’s first tenure led to an aggressive expansion of the franchise, first in Seattle, then across the West Coast of the United States.
Schultz was succeeded by Orin Smith who ran the company for five years and positioned Starbucks as a large player in fair trade coffee, increasing sales to US$5 billion.
Microsoft was founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen on April 4, 1975, to develop and sell BASIC interpreters for the Altair 8800.
It rose to dominate the personal computer operating system market with MS-DOS in the mid-1980s, followed by Windows.
The company’s 1986 initial public offering (IPO), and subsequent rise in its share price, created three billionaires and an estimated 12,000 millionaires among Microsoft employees.
Since the 1990s, it has increasingly diversified from the operating system market and has made a number of corporate acquisitions.
Whole Foods (1980)
In 1978, John Mackey and Renee Lawson borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open a small vegetarian natural foods store called SaferWay in Austin, Texas (the name being a spoof of Safeway supermarkets).
When the two were evicted for storing food products in their apartment, they decided to live at the store. Because it was zoned for commercial use, there was no shower stall, so they bathed using a water hose attached to their dishwasher.
Two years later, Mackey and Lawson partnered with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles to merge SaferWay with the latter’s Clarksville Natural Grocery, resulting in the opening of the original Whole Foods Market, which included meat products.
At 10,500 square feet (980 m2) and with a staff of 19, the store was large in comparison to the standard health food store of the time.
Amazon.com, Inc. was founded in July 1994 by Jeff Bezos, who at the time was a hedge fund manager. Bezos left his job and moved to Seattle, where he started the company in his garage. He initially named the company Cadabra, but changed it to Amazon after the world’s largest river.
Amazon started as an online bookstore, with Bezos personally delivering the first package to a customer in 1995. By the end of the year, Amazon had sold books to customers in all 50 states and 45 countries.
In 1997, Amazon went public, with its IPO price at $18 per share. The stock price soared and Bezos became a billionaire overnight.
Levi Strauss & Co. (1880)
Levi Strauss, the founder of Levi Strauss & Co., was born in Bavaria, Germany in 1829. He immigrated to the United States in 1847, settling in New York City. In 1853, he moved to San Francisco, where he established a wholesale dry goods business.
In 1873, Levi Strauss partnered with a tailor named Jacob Davis to create a durable work pant made from denim fabric.
They patented the design with rivets at stress points, which became known as “blue jeans”. The first jeans were sold to miners and laborers in the American West.
Over the years, Levi Strauss & Co. continued to innovate, introducing new styles and designs for both men and women. In the 1930s, the company expanded its product line to include jackets, shirts, and other clothing items.
Dunkin’ Donuts (1948)
Dunkin’ Donuts was founded in 1950 by William Rosenberg in Quincy, Massachusetts. Originally named “Open Kettle,” the shop sold coffee and doughnuts to factory workers in the area. In 1955, Rosenberg changed the name to Dunkin’ Donuts and began franchising the brand.
The company grew rapidly, with new locations opening across the United States and internationally. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dunkin’ Donuts expanded its menu to include bagels, muffins, and breakfast sandwiches, catering to a wider audience.
Kmart was founded in 1899 by Sebastian S. Kresge as a five-and-dime store in Detroit, Michigan. The store sold a variety of low-priced goods, including clothing, household items, and toys.
By the 1960s, Kmart had expanded into a nationwide chain of discount stores, offering a wider range of products at affordable prices.
The company went public in 1918 and continued to grow throughout the 20th century, with new stores opening across the United States and internationally.
In the 1980s and 90s, Kmart faced increased competition from other discount retailers, such as Walmart and Target.
The company struggled financially, facing declining sales and mounting debt. In 2002, Kmart filed for bankruptcy, citing competition and mismanagement as key factors.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Flickr / Britannica / Pinterest).