15 Famous Companies That Originally Sold Something Else

Duane Prokop/Getty Images for Avon Products, Inc.
Duane Prokop/Getty Images for Avon Products, Inc.

Some companies find their niche and stick to it. But others have to adapt to changing markets in order to thrive. Here's a look at some companies that switched industries at some point in their histories, usually for the better.

1. AVON

David H. McConnell started Avon in 1886 without meaning to. McConnell sold books door-to-door, but to lure in female customers he offered little gifts of perfume. Before long, the perfume McConnell was giving away had become more popular than the books he was selling, so he shifted focus and founded the California Perfume Company, which later became Avon.

2. NOKIA

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The telecom giant got its start in Finland in 1865, when Fredrik Idestam opened a pulp mill and started making paper on the banks of Tammerkoski. The company later bounced around a number of industries before getting serious about phones in the 1960s.

3. 3M

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When the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company's founders opened their business in Two Harbors, Minnesota, in 1902, they weren't selling Post-It Notes. The partners originally planned to sell the mineral corundum, an important ingredient in building grinding wheels, directly to manufacturers.

4. WRIGLEY

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Like Avon, the chewing gum company got its start with a popular freebie. William Wrigley, Jr. founded the company in 1891 with the goal of selling soap and baking powder. He offered chewing gum as an enticement to his customers, and eventually the customers didn't care about the baking powder; they only wanted the gum.

5. DUPONT

E.I. du Pont started the company that eventually became one of the world's largest chemical concerns in 1802 as a gunpowder business. Eventually the French immigrant expanded his business to include dynamite and other explosives before going into more diversified chemicals.

6. TIFFANY & CO.

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The jewelry and silverware hot bed was originally a stationer called Tiffany, Young, and Ellis when it started in 1837. In 1853 Tiffany switched its core business and began focusing on jewelry.

7. HASBRO

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The company behind Transformers and G.I. Joes began in 1923 as Hassenfeld Brothers. The titular brothers didn't make toys, though; they sold textile remnants. Their business gradually shifted into school supplies before making the leap to toys after the 1952 introduction of Mr. Potato Head.

8. COLECO

The defunct electronics corporation actually began as a leather goods company in Connecticut in 1932. In the early days it was known as the Connecticut Leather Company, which was later shortened to "Coleco." Oddly, fellow defunct computer marketer Tandy was also originally a leather goods company; it switched to electronics after acquiring RadioShack in 1963.

9. RAYTHEON

Raytheon Company CEO and chairman Daniel P. Burnham in 2002Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images

The defense contractor started up in 1922 as the American Appliance Company, which worked on refrigeration technology. Before long the company branched out into other areas of electronics and became Raytheon in 1925.

10. COLGATE

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The hygienic products company got its start in 1806, but it didn't make its first toothpaste until 1873. Founder William Colgate initially manufactured soap, candles, and starch.

11. XEROX

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When Xerox got off the ground in 1906, it was as a maker of photographic paper and photography equipment called the Haloid Company. The company didn't introduce what we would think of as a copier until the Xerox 914 made its debut in 1959.

12. JOHN DEERE

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The man behind the giant fleet of green tractors got his start as a blacksmith in Grand Detour, Illinois. After struggling to make plows that could cut through the area's tough clay, Deere hit on the idea of building plows out of cast steel, and his blacksmith gig gave way to a booming farm-supply business.

13. READING ENTERTAINMENT

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Remember the Reading Railroad from the last time you played Monopoly? The company still (sort of) exists! The Reading Company got out of the railroad business in 1976, but was reborn as Reading Entertainment, which operates movie theaters mainly in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.

14. BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY

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The sprawling holding company helmed by Warren Buffett was originally a textile manufacturer that took off in 1839. Buffett took control in 1962, though, and by 1967 he started to move outside of textiles into insurance and other sectors.

15. ABERCROMBIE & FITCH

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When David Abercrombie founded the clothing store in 1892 in New York City, he wasn't dreaming of clothing high school and college students everywhere. The store was originally a sporting goods shop and outfitter; Abercrombie even outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his famous flight across the Atlantic. The version of Abercrombie & Fitch you see in your local mall today started to come about after Limited Brands bought the company in 1988.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

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4. Martha Stewart 8-quart Stainless-Steel Pressure Cooker; $65

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If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

14 Facts About International Talk Like A Pirate Day

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Ahoy, me hearties! As many of you know, September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, an annual phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm, having been observed by every continent, the International Space Station, and even the Oval Office since it first made headlines back in 2002. So let’s hoist the Jolly Roger, break out the rum, and take a look back at the holiday’s timber-shivering history.

1. Talk Like a Pirate Day was originally conceived of on D-Day.

Talk Like a Pirate Day creators John Baur and Mark Summer (who’ve since acquired the nicknames “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy,” respectively) created the holiday while playing racquetball on June 6, 1995—the 51st anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Out of respect to the battle’s veterans, a new observance date was quickly sought.

2. September 19th also happens to be the birthday of the ex-wife of the holiday's co-creator.

“[September 19th was] the only date we could readily recall that wasn’t already taken up with Christmas or the Super Bowl or something,” the pair later claimed. Summers claims to harbor no ill will toward his former spouse, who has since stated, “I’ve never been prouder to be his ex-wife!

3. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is largely responsible for popularizing the holiday.

Dave Barry was so smitten with the holiday after having been introduced to it via email in early 2002 that he dedicated an entire column to its publicity that September, turning an inside joke into a global sensation. He later went on to make a cameo appearance in one of Baur and Summers’s buccaneer-themed music videos in 2011 (look for him in the video above at the 3:25 mark).

4. Real pirates spoke in a wide variety of dialects.

Despite some extensive “English-to-Pirate” dictionaries that have cropped up all over the Internet the idea that all pirates shared a common accent regardless of national origin is historically absurd, as National Geographic pointed out in 2011.

5. Actor Robert Newton is hailed as the "patron saint" of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

So where did the modern “pirate dialect” come from? Summers and Baur credit actor Robert Newton's performance in Treasure Island (1950) and have accordingly dubbed him the “patron saint” of their holiday. Tasked with breathing life into the scheming buccaneer, Newton simply exaggerated his native West Country accent and the rest is history.

6. John Baur's family was featured on a pirate-themed episode of Wife Swap.

The reality show’s highly-anticipated 2006 season premiere pitted the Baurs (in full pillaging regalia) against a family which, according to John’s wife Tori (a.k.a. “Mad Sally”), “behaved as though ‘fun’ was something that had to be pre-packaged for their protection.”

7. John Baur was also on Jeopardy!

Baur was described to the audience as “a writer and pirate from Oregon” in his 2008 appearance. “I didn’t win,” Baur said, “but the introduction made Alex blink.”

8. International Talk Like a Pirate Day has become a cornerstone of the Pastafarian movement.

Bobby Henderson, founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cited Earth’s dwindling pirate population as the clear source of global warming in his 2005 open letter to the Kansas school board which established the religion. Since then, Talk Like A Pirate Day has been observed by devout Pastafarians worldwide. 

9. A Florida mayor once ignited a local controversy for making an official Talk Like a Pirate Day proclamation.

In 2012, Lake Worth, Florida Mayor Pam Triolo lightheartedly urged her constituents to embrace the holiday last year, writing, “The City … is known to possess a spirit of independence, high spirits, and swashbuckling, all traits of a good pirate.” Her actions were criticized by the city’s former commissioner, Jo-Ann Golden, who took offense to the association with murderous seamen.

10. Day of the Ninja was created in response to Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Not to be outdone by their hated rivals, the pro-ninja community was quick to execute the first annual Day of the Ninja on December 5, 2002. For Summers and Baur’s take on the warring factions, see the clip above.

11. Astronauts once celebrated Talk Like a Pirate Day aboard the International Space Station.

In a 2012 interview, Summers recalled being “informed that the astronauts on the International Space Station were awakened to ‘A Pirate’s Life For Me' and joined in the pirate talk from space.”

12. President Obama once celebrated with a costumed buccaneer in the Oval Office.

In 2012, Barack Obama tweeted this image on Talk Like a Pirate Day with the caption “Arr you in?”

13. A congressman later used the holiday to slam President Obama's tax plan.

In 2011, Florida’s 12th congressional district representative Dennis Ross used the festivity as a political punchline after Obama made a speech detailing his tax plan, tweeting, “It is TALK like a pirate day … not ACT like one. Watch ye purses and bury yr loot, the taxman cometh.”

14. It's an official holiday in the state of Michigan.

On June 4, 2013, state senator Roger Kahn’s proposal to grant International Talk Like A Pirate Day official acknowledgement from the Michigan government was formally adopted, to the chagrin of some dissenting landlubbers. 

This story originally ran in 2013.