Viktor Schreckengost

by Don Boudreaux on January 29, 2008

in Standard of Living

Ever hear of
Viktor Schreckengost?  I hadn’t heard of him until this morning when I read his obituary in the Washington Post.  Mr. Schreckengost died recently, at the age of 101.

So why do I care?  Why should you care?

I care and you should care because Mr. Schreckengost likely has done more to make your life better and pleasant than has nearly any of the politicians you can name.  Measuring any one person’s contributions to a society whose essence is vast and on-going social cooperation is inherently difficult and often speculative.  Still, I’ll speculate.  I have a strong sense that the positive value of Viktor Schreckengost’s contributions to human well-being exceeds that of FDR, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, any Kennedy or Bush, Kofi Annan, Nancy Pelosi, Tip O’Neill — you name the political operative.

A good sense of Mr. Schreckengost’s contributions comes from the opening paragraph of the Post’s obit:

Viktor Schreckengost, 101, a celebrated industrial designer whose
products included mass-produced dinnerware, riding lawn mowers,
bicycles and coffins, and who revolutionized trucking by putting the
cab over the engine, died Jan. 26 at his condominium in Tallahassee.

Read the entire obit to learn more fully just how much this man has contributed.

His mass-produced dinnerware is especially interesting.  Here’s more from the obit:

Mr. Schreckengost — whose name means "frightening guest" in German –
was born June 23, 1906, in Sebring, Ohio. He learned clay sculpting
from his father, a commercial potter, and said his parents expected
their children to make their own toys…..

In the early 1930s, he was hired by American Limoges to design what is
widely believed to be the first modern mass-produced dinnerware. Its
patterns had a Manhattan theme and became ubiquitous in homes of that
era.

So Mr Schreckengost contributed in a major way to a commercial enterprise that was in competition with his father’s profession.  With the advent of mass-produced dinnerware — designed, by the way, by a man whose work was sought after by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt — millions of ordinary families could acquire higher-quality or lower-cost dinnerware from large-scale producers.  Surely this development wasn’t good for the business of most commercial potters.  But it was good for ordinary people.

So rest in peace, Mr. Schreckengost.  I salute you.  I salute your creativity, your work, your life.  Even though I, like most people, had never before heard of you, know that I am happy not only to have learned of you but, perhaps ironically, also to live in a society that encourages creative people such as yourself to work for my betterment without my having to grovel before you, to enslave you, or even to pay you the kind of modest homage that I offer here.

UPDATE: Steve Horwitz has these important reflections on Mr. Schreckengost over at The Austrian Economists.

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{ 23 comments }

anon. January 29, 2008 at 11:51 am

"Mr. Schreckengost was one of the world's most prolific artists of commercial goods, and his impact on the economy once was calculated at more than $200 billion."

I'm sure there are plenty of politicians whose impact on the economy has been equally large. The direction of the impact, however, is a different matter entirely.

Steven Horwitz January 29, 2008 at 12:01 pm

Beautiful Don. People like this deserve celebration in just this way.

Flash Gordon January 29, 2008 at 12:37 pm

I'm sure there are plenty of politicians whose impact on the economy has been equally large.

Plenty? No. But Ronald Reagan deserves some credit for lowering Mr. Shreckengost's taxes and making the government a bit less oppressive so that Mr. Schreckengost could operate more freely and accomplish more good things.

I would say that most of the other politicians you could name either did nothing to help Mr. Schreckengost to help us, or actually hindered his efforts.

Steven Horwitz January 29, 2008 at 1:43 pm

I have a few more comments on Viktor over at The Austrian Economists.

muirgeo January 29, 2008 at 6:12 pm

Plenty? No. But Ronald Reagan deserves some credit for lowering Mr. Shreckengost's taxes and making the government a bit less oppressive so that Mr. Schreckengost could operate more freely and accomplish more good things.

Posted by: Flash Gordon

Yeah sure Flash except that he had retired in 1972. In fact his greatest contibutions came during and after FDR's administration…..Try again.

http://www.viktorschreckengost.org/ThreeWorlds

By the end of the decade, Viktor became the chief bicycle designer for Murray-Ohio, a position held formerly by the famous Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. In 1939 he released his first design, the 1939 Mercury Bicycle, which was displayed along with four of his sculptures (The Four Elements) at the New York World's Fair. In the early 1940's Viktor began quietly revolutionizing the manufacture of children's pedal cars as well.

World War II interrupted his design and ceramic work when he joined the US Navy. His talents were soon recognized and he was recruited to develop a system for radar recognition that won him the Secretary of Navy's commendation.

After the war, Schreckengost resumed his industrial design career creating products for Murray, Sears, General Electric, Salem China Company, and Harris Printing, among others. Approximately 100 million of his bicycles and pedal cars were manufactured by Murray, which made it the largest bicycle-maker in the world.

He retired from industrial design in 1972, but continued teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

colson January 29, 2008 at 7:08 pm

These are the people I love to read about, although their deaths are nothing to be celebrated. It is interesting that the extent of the man's "invisible" influence on our daily lives has yet to merit a wikipedia page (at least from my searching).

I guess I'll have to go add an entry on his behalf after doing some research on the guy. But first, I need to clock out an go home :)

muirgeo January 29, 2008 at 7:13 pm

More for Flash. I think the politicians and their policy do matter.

FreedomLover January 29, 2008 at 11:11 pm

Another one of Ayn Rand's "Atlases" who didn't shrug, but they just might if we keep burdening them. Remember, capital is very liquid these days, and SE Asia beckons…

Hans Luftner January 30, 2008 at 5:50 am

In fact his greatest contibutions came during and after FDR's administration.

Therefore, LOGICALLY, anything good he did must have been caused by the FDR administration.

In the early 1940's Viktor began quietly revolutionizing the manufacture of children's pedal cars as well.

Wow. My dad was born in the early forties. His birth must have caused these innovations, since the events coincided loosely. I can't wait to tell him. He'll be so proud.

Oh, he'll scoff at first, but I'll repeat my idiotic claim over & over again & insist that it's empirical evidence, without explaining how one event caused the other, & without acknowledging that this is what educated people call a post hoc fallacy, but I'll still insist that I'm right anyway. If my dad isn't convinced even after I repeat my assertion a few more times, I'll just declare him blinded by ideology.

muirgeo January 30, 2008 at 8:53 am

Hans,

I wasn't crediting his success with any president but discrediting the ignorant idea that his success was related to Reaganomics. I was correcting the time-line because we see stupid erroneous stuff like Flash wrote based on pushing the false assumption that the economy does better under Republicans.

Are you trying to tell me what Flash wrote was sensible?

Martin Brock January 30, 2008 at 10:28 am

First, Ronald Reagan didn't lower taxes. He raised them. He cut marginal income taxes while raising the payroll tax and other taxes, and he sold lots of Treasury notes which, as Milton Friedman notes, is just an inefficient means of taxation. Reagan increased spending, though not as much as Bush II, and the state gets what it spends by taxing. There is no free lunch.

I'm a technophile myself, so I admire the man as much as anyone. Was he more valuable than FDR? Maybe so, but I don't credit FDR with much value, so that's not saying much. Lots of people we never hear of make greater contributions than FDR.

My problem with the hero worship is that we then start decreeing it "just" that our heroes be as powerful as FDR. So we give Schreckengost a forcible monopoly over a whole category of production (a patent) even though, despite his undoubted intellect, someone else would have come up (and many probably did come up) with the same or similar innovations without him.

Then this monopoly and its descendants become the property of a corporation that lobbies Congress for regulatory impediments to market entry before selling the monopoly to the Chinese in exchange for a flow of currency to a few U.S. corporatists.

So let's praise Schreckengost and then bury his patents with him, if he had any. If he didn't, let's sing his praises louder.

Martin Brock January 30, 2008 at 10:38 am

Hans:

Therefore, LOGICALLY, anything good he did must have been caused by the FDR administration.

muirgeo doesn't make this assertion. That's you. muirgeo counters an assertion that Reagan's tax cuts had something do with Schreckengost creativity, since they clearly didn't.

Ambassadors Jakupca January 30, 2008 at 11:23 am

ARK in Berea – Like many other fans, American Cultural Ambassadors David and Renate Jakupca were was deeply saddened to hear of this of Victor's passing. He was truly a gift to all of us! His talent was immense and his potential was limitless. It was a honor, as fellow artists, to have witnessed his growth as an designer in the many roles he undertook. With that beautiful and genuine smile that warmed the heart, Victor captured the hearts of many. Our sincere condolences go to the Schreckengost family and the rest of his many friends and fans. Gain comfort in knowing that he was truly beloved.

Henri Hein January 30, 2008 at 8:42 pm

"most of the other politicians you could name either did nothing to help Mr. Schreckengost to help us, or actually hindered his efforts"

I think that's why Anon said, "The direction of the impact, however, is a different matter entirely."

Hans Luftner January 30, 2008 at 11:59 pm

Are you trying to tell me what Flash wrote was sensible?

No, I don't credit Reagan much with anything. I don't know where you got the idea that I was. Just made it up, I guess. I was responding to your repeated assertion that presidents in general, Democrats specifically, FDR especially, can bless us into prosperity with their wise policies. You countered Flash's crediting of Reagan by again, if only implicitly, crediting FDR for the post-WWII upswing, then posted a graph which implied that Democrats are better at running the economy, or as you put it, you "corrected the timeline".

& yes, Martin, he totally makes that assertion. Read his post again. He always makes that assertion.

The Albatross January 31, 2008 at 12:14 am

Frankly, I’m surprised that Emperor Roosevelt allowed Mr. Schreckengost to sell his massed produced cutlery—considering that the New Deal appeared to be mostly about paying people not to produce things. But then again I suppose FDR was too busy ordering people not to grow food or raise livestock in a country that was starving to deal with something like cutlery. However, I am surprised (again) that he did not intervene to protect the jobs of those harmed by Mr. Schreckengost’s inventions, but I guess he had too many other peoples’ lives to butt into. For those interested about the New Deal, I would recommend the Forgotten Man by Amity Shales or Robert Higg’s Crisis and the Leviathan, but I am pretty sure most in the Café are already familiar with these works.

muirgeo January 31, 2008 at 1:01 am

Say what you want Albatross but the post New Deal economy seriously puts your economic philosophy to question. It should have been a total disaster yet it was probably our strongest economy ever.

The Albatross January 31, 2008 at 1:36 am

“Say what you want Albatross but the post New Deal economy seriously puts your economic philosophy to question. It should have been a total disaster yet it was probably our strongest economy ever.”

Really? Does Mr. Hoover represent my economic philosophy? The man raised taxes, jacked up tariffs to ridiculous levels, and proceeded to build the largest federal buildings then in the world (the commerce and labour departments)? Under Hoover the Fed raised interest rates during a period of deflation. Under Hoover the government began the process of paying people to dig holes and fill them up again. Mr. Hoover (the great engineer) was no lover of laissez-faire. He was a great statist—almost a big a statist as the man who succeeded him. He took what may have been an otherwise sharp, but brief downturn and tuned into a disaster with his heavy handed statist policies. Mr. Hoover does not represent my economic philosophy, but what about the successes of Mr. Roosevelt? He inherited an economy that had bottomed-out (despite the best efforts of Mr. Hoover), which slid back into recession in 1936. Unemployment was little better in 1940 than in 1933—even with all the war orders and capital flight from Europe pouring in. Nice to see that on the eve of WW II after nearly 8 years on the Job the New Deal was really working to pull the American economy out of The Depression. Even if WW II ended the Great Depression (as most historians seem to say it does—I disagree—doubling production to build weapons ain’t exactly stimulus the people can eat), then was it a war and not the New Deal that ended the Great Depression? And what of the unemployed? Funny, how the number of unemployed corresponds very closely to the number of people who served in WW II. We just took the unemployed and gave them guns or gave them the jobs of others we then gave guns. I won’t go into the details of the post-war economy—Truman’s two lame duck terms, and the gradual re-opening of trade and removal of much government control of the economy, which led to a post war boom—after all the mal-effects of government wartime regulation, wage, and price controls had finally come to pass, the country finally emerged from the Great Depression after WW II, more than twelve years after the New Deal began fighting it—as the saying goes “Mission Accomplished.” My (and I say my because I have adopted the beliefs of intellects that dwarf my own) economic ideology of free trade and free markets has brought wealth freedom and prosperity to the world. The statists have little to show for their efforts except for poverty—and a lot of corpses.

Hans Luftner January 31, 2008 at 2:16 am

Say what you want Albatross but the post New Deal economy seriously puts your economic philosophy to question. It should have been a total disaster yet it was probably our strongest economy ever.

Again: post New Deal means after the New Deal stopped. You've never explained how you can credit FDR for the things that people did when he wasn't able to stand in their way anymore.

Do you also credit the bubonic plague for the post-plague decline in death rates?

Martin Brock January 31, 2008 at 8:56 am

Hans:

& yes, Martin, he totally makes that assertion. Read his post again. He always makes that assertion.

He doesn't. You do. The record is very clear.

James Hanley January 31, 2008 at 2:00 pm

I'm always amazed–sadly amazed–that so many folks (not commenters here, just in general) think politicians are the worthy ones because they're focused on "the public interest" and mere innovators like Schreckengost are just self-interested and so don't deserve praise.

I say that as a political scientist. I teach political science, so presumably I ought to agree, but I don't. Schrekegost did more to make my life better than any, or all, of the politicians named here.

Dan February 4, 2008 at 1:52 pm

Several years ago there was an exhibit of Schreckengost's works at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The guy was truly a 20th century Renaissance Man. Then when we walked out of the exhibit, in a corner at a folding table sat a quiet elderly man with people walking past him–it was Schreckengost himself. My wife and I chatted with him a few minutes and thanked him for his lifetime of doing things to make peoples' lives better.

Bob February 5, 2008 at 8:26 am

It's very odd you should use the death of an inventor to put down politicians. I think you have issues, buddy.

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