The Motley Fool is celebrating 15 Years of Foolishness. Grab your party hats and relive a decade and a half of education, amusement, and enrichment.

You've heard stories about dystopian futures. But what about a dystopian past? Flash back to 1993, and you may recall that it was a bleak time for individual investors who might have entertained the notion of investing in stocks on their own.  

Imagine trying to get information on a company without the aid of Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and a couple of keystrokes. In fact, imagine ferreting out a company's address or telephone number without the Internet at all.

If you wanted to find consensus analysts' estimates, you could forget about it. Financial news required a pricey subscription to The Wall Street Journal and getting your fingertips blackened in the process -- and forget real-time news, for that matter. How would you like trying to teach yourself to read financial statements by spending a heck of a lot of time at the local library, probably challenged to even figure out the best books to pick off the shelves?

There was no Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) Finance. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) didn't have MSN Money. Bloomberg had its state-of-the-art terminals, but since it targeted huge institutions, these featured prohibitively expensive monthly fees.

Traditional, full-service brokerage firms had a stranglehold on individuals who wanted to invest their money. Wall Street might as well have been on Mars. No wonder brokers did the driving -- and charged exorbitant fees. The time and money you'd spend digging up information was nothing less than daunting. 

SEC filings for a fee
Even getting SEC filings was tough. In 1993, I was working for a subcontractor to the Securities and Exchange Commission. It sold SEC filings, as well as research and database products using SEC data, mostly to institutions such as brokerages and accounting firms.

Every once in a while, intrepid individual investors -- I'd call those folks pioneers now! -- would call up to order filings, too. They'd whine when they realized they had to pay for those filings, but they usually did it anyway -- although I got an absolute earful many a time. However, this was the fastest and most convenient way to get one's hands on 10-Ks, 10-Qs, 8-Ks, IPO filings, and proxy statements, which would be copied from microfiche stored in a fire-safe vault and could be overnighted, mailed, or -- in selected cities and their suburbs -- even couriered to recipients. Back then, that was about as good as it got.  

The SEC's EDGAR database, eventually a democratizing force, was in its infancy way back then -- and the EDGAR documents were anything but easy on the eyes, with tiny type and ugly formatting. You see, the Internet was not yet mainstream, and it still wasn't a foregone conclusion with many people that computers would ever become major fixtures on every corporate desktop and in every household.

I find my first "real job" a rather poignant reminder of how much things have changed since then, pushed into the future by an IPO that rocked that old world. That was for the browser company Netscape, and everybody wanted to get his or her hands on that filing. I remember paging through the document, hot off the presses, and thinking this was going to be big.    

From the Dark Ages to the Golden Age
Netscape brought the World Wide Web to the masses with its Web browser, as did Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) America Online, which has a bit of a sad reputation now but certainly deserves its spot in history. AOL, which eventually bought Netscape, served a role in The Motley Fool's beginnings, too. Tom and David Gardner started out The Motley Fool as a print newsletter with a small audience, but the Fool's presence on AOL was one of its first big breaks into making it the well-known brand it is today.

My walk down memory lane serves as a reminder that when the Gardners started The Motley Fool in 1993, they quickly latched on to the Internet's democratization of financial information and the opportunities that would bring. That's also what sparked my notice of The Motley Fool somewhere around the mid-1990s, after I'd made my next career move to a real-time financial news aggregator and realized these Fool guys not only "got it," but that the supposedly stodgy world of financial information could be cool and fun, too!

Helping fuel the Fool's mission were the revolutionary online discount-brokerage firms, such as Charles Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW), Ameritrade (now TD AMERITRADE (NASDAQ:AMTD)), and E*Trade (NASDAQ:ETFC), which allowed individual investors to trade on their own with low commissions. 

15 years later …
Here we are now, and so much promise has come to fruition. Just look at The Motley Fool -- it's a rich tapestry of information and opinion from investors of all stripes and all walks of life. Fool.com features tons of free advice and commentary on a daily basis, often served up with a laugh, a critical interpretation, or an attitude too often missing elsewhere. Community members hash it all out on a massive collection of discussion boards, and they also form strong opinions on stocks and compete against tens of thousands of other investors in Motley Fool CAPS. In our premium services, subscribers not only talk amongst themselves, but also converse quite often with the services' advisors themselves.

There have been some rocky moments in the past 15 years, including the dot-com bubble's burst. There've been painful lessons, as well as examples of serious confidence crushers, such as the Enron and WorldCom debacles. Right now, our economy faces serious hazards, and we're all being challenged by the appearance of a particularly vicious bear market as we speak.

But just think: It's been an incredible 15 years for individual investors. We have more information, communication, and knowledge at our disposal than we could have dreamed of way back when, and that is still a true gift full of great potential. The Fool has been by your side the whole time, educating, amusing, and enriching. Here's to the next 15 years! 

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Charles Schwab is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax owns no shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy