Monday, November 26, 2012

Hostess, not the first brand to go away.

With all the attention being paid to the demise of the Hostess brands, Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Cup Cakes, I started thinking about other iconic brands that have disappeared since I became an adult.

There are lots of them: Airlines, Pan Am and TWA; Department store chains, Montgomery Ward; Five and Dimes, Woolworths and Kressge; Automobiles, DeSoto and Oldsmobile, the list goes on.

I have written before about the demise of major American airlines. Since deregulation, many airlines, regional and national have disappeared, but TWA and Pan Am may be the most iconic and memorable.

Pan American Airways was the largest international air carrier in the United States, from its founding in 1927 until its demise in 1991. During that time it was the unofficial “Flag Carrier” of the U.S. It was also one of the most recognizable airline, or frankly, travel brands in the world. It started in Key West, Florida but expanded throughout Latin America, then Europe and the Pacific. By using seaplanes, or flying boats, it pioneered routes from San Francisco, to Honolulu and on to Hong Kong, during the 1930s.

It also pioneered the use of jet aircraft in the 50s and 60s. After WWII, Pan Am began aggressively moving to land-based aircraft (this in response to TWA) even for trans-oceanic flights. In 1958 it inaugurated service from New York’s Idyllwild (now JFK) airport to Paris with the new Boeing 707.

Pan Am was not just recognizable in the skies; it was recognizable on Manhattan’s Skyline. Its headquarters building on Park Avenue at East 45th Street, above the Grand Central Terminal opened in 1963 with the words Pan Am emblazoned across the top. Today, the building is the Met Life building with the words Met Life having replace Pan Am.

It was a Pan Am flight that was downed over Lockerbie Scotland by a terrorist bomb. That in conjunction with the Oil Crisis and soaring oil prices of the 70s and the first Gulf War drove Pan Am to the point of bankruptcy. It sold off its most profitable routes between the US and London to United Airlines. In December of 1991 Pan Am shut down operations.

TWA for most of its existence was Pan Am’s major competitor. It began in 1925 as Transcontinental Air Transport and as with most airlines of the day; its primary income came from mail contracts. Eventually it became one of the largest air carriers in the US, but also had a significant presence around the world.

For years it flew another icon of the air, the legendary DC-3. It also flew Lockheed Constellations, favored by Howard Hughes who acquired control of TWA.

In 1958 TWA was the first airline to hire an African-American flight attendant, though it did so only after legal action. Flight attendants in those days were always women and were referred to as stewardesses.

Carl Icahn acquired TWA in 1985 and proceeded to sell off most of its profitable assets (that is why he is called a corporate raider), in turn providing him a profit but beginning to gut the airline.

Icahn left in 1993 but not before securing a sweetheart deal for a company that he formed, called Karabu, which was able to purchase airline tickets from TWA at a 45% discount. The ‘Karabu Deal’ allowed Karabu to purchase a significant portion of seats on most TWA flights at a heavy discount and then resell those tickets at a huge profit. TWA was basically hamstrung. It is estimated that TWA was losing $150 Million a year on this deal and went in and out of bankruptcy.

In April 2001, American Airlines acquired TWA. The last official TWA flight was on December 1, 2001.

Montgomery Ward and Company. I can still see the ‘Monkey Wards’ building on south Broadway, in Denver. The building was torn down in 1993. However, the Montgomery Ward building in Pueblo, Colorado is still there and is on the register of historic places. Among other things, the building is home to the Colorado Lottery.
Along with Sears, Roebuck and Company, Montgomery Ward was one of the major retailers in the U.S during the 20th century.

Starting out in 1872, in Chicago (also the home of Sears), Montgomery Ward pioneered the sale to rural America, ‘city goods’ through mail-order catalog. The Wish Book was everywhere in rural and small town America. Eventually that mail-order business was augmented by a chain of retail stores.

In 1985 Montgomery Ward went out of the catalog business and concentrated on its retail outlets. It also tried to rebrand itself as Wards. Unfortunately, those retail outlets had not kept up with the growth of the suburban shopping center concept by moving into those centers, and business was declining.
By May of 2001, Wards was gone.

Woolworth’s was another major retailer in the 20th century. It pioneered the concept of the Five and Dime store. The concept had merchandise out on display shelves for the public to be able to handle and examine, there was no need to ask a clerk to see an item. Also the merchandise was sold at a fixed unit price: either five cents or ten cents. This was revolutionary at the time.

There is a wonderful scene in the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s where Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard browse through a five and dime to steal a pair of Halloween masks. I don’t remember that it was a Woolworths.

F.W. Woolworth’s became very profitable and in 1913 built the Woolworth Building sky scraper in Manhattan.

Another success innovation was the inclusion of lunch counters in the stores. Shoppers could get a sandwich while they shopped. It was the segregated lunch counter at the Woolworth store in Greenville, South Carolina that was the sight of a sit-in by four African-American students in 1960. An eight-foot section of that lunch counter is now in the Smithsonian Institution.

Having pioneered the concept of the five and dime, or ‘Dime store’, F.W. Woolworth pioneered the concept of the big-box discount store. Its Woolco was the first of these that eventually led to such stores as Wal-Mart, Kmart (originally the S.S. Kresge five and dime stores) and Target.

Woolco is now gone as is Woolworth’s. In 1997 Woolworth’s closed its remaining stores and changed its corporate name to Venator. Venator now operates the Footlocker chain.

I once had a 1954 DeSoto. It was a 4-door sedan, six-cylinder ‘Powermaster’ that I bought from Dale’s Camper Sales and used cars in Fountain, Colorado in about 1967. DeSoto was already a defunct brand when I bought my car. I don’t actually remember when I got rid of it.

DeSoto was part of the Chrysler family of cars, which included Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler. Plymouth was the low-priced vehicle; DeSoto and Dodge the mid-price; and Chrysler the top end. Walter P Chrysler (from Ellis, Kansas) founded the company in 1925. He created the DeSoto brand in 1928.

At about the same time, Chrysler acquired the Dodge Brother’s car company and over the years the Dodge and DeSoto models would actually compete with one another. Eventually Dodge won out and Chrysler discontinued the DeSoto in 1961.

I had another car brand that has now gone away. I had a 1965 (Nash) Rambler station wagon. It was the vehicle I used for a long time when I traveled on the road as a musician. I could load instruments and PA system in the back and four musicians could ride up front.

Nash was another iconic brand from the 20th century. It began life in 1916 and over time the company name would evolve (at one point, Nash-Kelvinator who also produced Kelvinator refrigerators). With the acquisition of the Hudson Motor Car company, it became American Motors (headed by George Romney). Eventually the company stopped using the Hudson nameplate, and dropped the Nash part of the Nash-Rambler name. It did however continue to produce the Nash Metropolitan (what a great little car).
Eventually it acquired Kaiser Jeep, the old Willys Overland company.

In 1987, Chrysler acquired the entire company as the Jeep Eagle division and only produced Jeeps. The Nash and its antecedents were gone.

There were others, the Packard and Studebaker and Studebaker’s final vehicle the Avanti (“Guaranteed to go 160 MPH”); the Oldsmobile, etc.

I won’t miss Hostess Twinkies or the like - I have not had or wanted one in at least 40 years - but many of the above brands, I do miss.

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