The Top 10: Unexpected company origins

John Rentoul
American Express delivery cart, 1878 (Smithsonian National Postal Museum)

This one was started by Alan Robertson, who mentioned nos 4, 5 and 6. I’ve listed them in order of the date of founding.

1. Peugeot started in 1810 making coffee mills and pepper grinders – which many French restaurants still use. Nominated by Leo Cendrowicz and Tom Joyce.

2. American Express was founded in 1850 as an express mail service, using horses (above). Thanks to Jonathan Dunn.

3. BSA Motorcycles started as a gunmaker, Birmingham Small Arms Company, in 1861. From Alastair Stewart.

4. Nokia, started as a paper mill in Finland in 1865. “Obviously,” said Leo Cendrowicz. A lot of nominations for this one.

5. Glaxo, now part of drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline, started as a dried milk company in New Zealand, 1873.

6. Nintendo started as a maker of playing cards in 1889.

7. Shell began as a London antiques business, which got into import-export via Oriental shells. It wasn’t exactly the same company: the Samuels brothers started a new one to import oil, called the Tank Syndicate, and in 1897 renamed it the Shell Transport and Trading Company. Thanks to David Herdson.

8. Toyota Motor Company was spun off in 1937 from Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, founded by Sakichi Toyoda in 1926. The reason for the name change is unclear: possibly because Toyota sounds more refined than Toyoda in Japanese. Nominated by Ian Rapley and Jonathan Dunn.

9. Samsung, South Korean electronics company, started in dried fish, noodles and other groceries, 1938. “Didn’t give electronics a go for 30 years,” said Patrick Kidd.

10. WPP, the advertising giant, started as Wire and Plastic Products plc, a maker of wire shopping baskets, in 1971. Thanks to Rob Jackson, James and Richard Zhang.

Bubbling under, some nominations that didn’t quite make the top 10: Tetley (salt, 1822, Yorkshire); Tiffany’s (stationery, 1837, New York); 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company, 1902); Sharp (propelling pencil, the Ever-Sharp, 1915); Ducati (radio parts, 1926, Italy).

Nominations that were rejected included Panini stickers, which a colleague thought had started as a bakery. No. The company is named after the Panini brothers, whose name may once have been bread-based, who bought a collection of stickers another company had been unable to sell, and came up with the idea of selling them in packets of two. Iain Houten nominated The Beatles, because someone has to. And, according to Peter Jackson, Manchester United were once just a football club.

Finally, a late entry for last week’s TV drama clichés from David Fatscher: “When someone uses a microphone or public address system (wedding reception, employee briefing), there will always be a moment of feedback to foreshadow the announcement. It is used either for comedic effect or when global catastrophe looms (the US president is about to announce an imminent invasion from Mars and the White House tech guys haven’t had time to do the ‘one-two testing’ thing).”

Next week: Real people whose names are palindromes (a special one, this)

Coming soon: Fictional universities, such as Euphoric State University, in David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to