New Frontiers in American Business

On this day in economic and business history...

An A&W root beer stand opened in Washington, D.C. on May 20, 1927. Its owner, John Willard Marriott, would expand his business over the years into Marriott International (NASDAQ: MAR  ) , one of the world's largest hospitality companies. It took years to transition from diners to travelers. Marriott initially clung to the business by rebranding it "The Hot Shoppe" in the fall of 1927 to avoid the seasonality typical of soda-fountain shops. It took 30 years for Marriott to open his first hotel, which in 1957 was built in Arlington, Va., a suburb of D.C. The company remained "Hot Shoppes" until finally changing its name to Marriott in 1967 under the guidance of J. W. Marriott, Jr., who's largely responsible for the growth of the company's hotel operations. Marriott's Hot Shoppes remained until 1999, when the last one was shuttered, but by then the company hardly needed the diversity. Today, the Marriott empire extends across 3,800 properties in 74 countries, with more than 650,000 rooms available to travelers of all kinds.

Taming the American frontier
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862. It would be the first in a series of similar acts that transformed the American frontier, opening up federally owned land for claim by anyone with $10 and the gumption to stake out a plot and stick to it for five years. Seven years later, the completion of a transcontinental railroad enabled many more homesteaders to flood west, accelerating the pace of the homesteading land rush and creating a positive-feedback loop of settlement and railroad development that led to two huge booms and busts before the 20th century began -- indirectly informing the creation of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) , which was formed in opposition to the railroad-stock dominance of pre-1900 markets.

The Homestead Act and its successors would remain in force nationally until 1976 and in Alaska until 1986. By the end of the Homestead Act's lifespan, 1.6 million claims had taken 420,000 square miles -- more than 10% of all the land in the U.S. -- off of government hands. Small wonder, then, that the Homestead Act has been called one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.

Mr. Blue Jean
An all-American fashion icon was legitimized on May 20, 1873, when Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss obtained a joint patent on riveted "waist overalls," now known around the world as blue jeans. The term is actually somewhat inaccurate, as "jean" is a lighter cotton fabric than denim, the preferred fabric, but that didn't matter to Davis, Strauss, or their many customers working in the California gold mines, who appreciated the rivet-bound pants' durability.

Levi Strauss soon became the leading jeans-maker by dint of an early market position and patent protection, but now the market has been fragmented by more than a century of competition, producing pants for all tastes and at nearly all price points. You can find many of these price points at the various outlets owned by Gap, which offers inexpensive jeans at Old Navy and costlier versions on its flagship brand. At the upper echelons of "designer" jeans you'll find brands like True Religion (NASDAQ: TRLG  ) , whose pants might cost as much as a half-decent suit. This splintering of the market has helped jeans become a multibillion-dollar global business, with roughly $60 billion in annual sales expected by the start of the 2020s.

The whirlybird takes off
Igor Sikorsky conducted the first public demonstration of his experimental helicopter, the VS-300, on May 20, 1940. Working for United Aircraft (now United Technologies (NYSE: UTX  ) ), Sikorsky had been plugging along on a shoestring budget of just $30,000 for two years to develop what became the first practical helicopter flown in the U.S. After numerous tweaks, several near-catastrophes, and a whole lot of elbow grease, Sikorsky tugged on a "crash helmet" (that is, a jaunty fedora), lifted straight up in the air, and hovered about 30 feet off the ground for a group of aviation journalists and other important guests. The age of the helicopter had arrived.

Today, helicopters have become an important link in the global aviation chain, with an estimated $18 billion annual market size. By the 2020s, the world may release another 24,000 helicopters worth roughly $250 billion into the skies, with 75% of that total meant for civilian use. Sikorsky, the helicopter-making aircraft subsidiary of United Technologies, no longer leads the market in the machine it helped create. Eurocopter, a subsidiary of Dutch EADS, leads the pack, frequently accounting for at least half of the global civilian 'copter market. Sikorsky doesn't even get runner-up status: That prize generally goes to Bell, a subsidiary of Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) , which is a leader in serving the oil and gas industry and its many offshore drilling rigs.

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