STILL FLYING AND NAILED TO THE MAST
While there are no hard-and-fast rules governing the writing of introductions, it is generally agreed that their chief purpose is to serve as a sort of catalyst. The theory is that when two strangers confront one another, the introduction - provided it successfully accomplishes what it set out to do - will help them discover fields of common interest and so pave the way for what (if all goes well) will develop into a firm and lasting friendship. Thus written introductions serve precisely the same ends as those that are spoken, but with this added advantage: When introducing a book to a prospective reader the catalyzing agent has an opportunity to tell him in some detail what he may expect to find. After that he is on his own.
This, then, is the biography of a business. It is the story of a company that has completed its first hundred years and, a hale and hearty centenarian, looks forward with confidence to its second century. In the business world, as among individuals, it is given to only a few to weather the hazards of a full ten decades. Those that are fortunate, or sagacious, enough to do so have every reason to be proud of their achievement, and to commemorate the event, as they often do, by compiling and publishing a history of their first hundred years.
While this is, of course, an altogether appropriate gesture, it should be pointed out that it involves certain risks. For in a high percentage of cases company histories make extremely dull reading - dull not only to the public at large but members of the organizations themselves.
That the present work succeeds so well in avoiding that pitfall is a tribute both to the ingenuity of the author and to the variety and interest of the material he had to work with. For the insurance business, far more than most commercial enterprises, has ramifications that enter into virtually every aspect of the economic and social life of the people it serves. Moreover, the nature of the business is such that its services are constantly being broadened and diversified to keep abreast of changes in the expanding economy of the nation.
The pages that follow make clear just how great these changes have been. When the company was organized in 1863, its home city of San Francisco had a population of only about 65,000, while that of the entire state was well under half a million. Travel to and from the east coast was limited to the Panama steamers and the overland stage lines, neither of which made the journey in under three weeks. The Pony Express had begun operating less than three years earlier and had ended abruptly when the line of the Overland Telegraph was strung in the fall of 1861. Cobblestone streets and board sidewalks were everywhere the rule, and such streetcars as existed were all horse-drawn. "Steamer Day" - so named for the twice-monthly sailings of the Pacific Mail sidewheelers - was still a San Francisco institution, as were also Emperor Norton, volunteer fire companies, and that long-vanished boon to local bar patrons, the seven-course free lunch.
Each decade thereafter brought the country - and the company - new opportunities and new challenges: the silver mining speculation of the '70's, world-wide trading in California wheat during the '8o's, and, as the century drew to a close, the Klondike excitement and the Philippine War. Then came 1906, a series of booms and depressions, two world wars, plus fires, floods, hurricanes, shipwrecks, robberies, treasure hunts, and much else. All of which passes in review in Mr. Bronson's book, and at a pace that leaves the reader slightly breathless as he turns the pages.
One feature of the book's plan should be mentioned; that is, the means by which the author introduces his subject and leads into its main theme. Instead of beginning with an account of the firm's founding, he takes us back more than a dozen years and tells of one Argonaut's trip across the plains in 1849 and of what befell him after he arrived. The reason for this unconventional opening presently becomes clear: it serves admirably to set the stage and prepare the reader for what is to come. For the pioneer whose fortunes we follow in Chapter One is the man who more than any other was responsible for piloting the company through the critical first years. Thus the story of his rise in the business life of the new state becomes also the story of the circumstances under which this, the first of the West's major insurance companies, came into existence.
A word should be said, too, of the illustrations, which, by their number and variety and the care with which they have been selected and arranged, both enliven the pages and, together with their detailed captions, add measurably to the interest of the story.
A final note on introductions: whether they are spoken or written, the chief source of danger is the temptation to make them overlong. If one must err, let it be on the side of brevity, for to string them out to the point of tediousness is the surest way to nip a promising friendship in the bud. And that is something that in the present instance should by all means be avoided.
- OSCAR LEWIS
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