Iconic? You’re No Rebecca Pennock Lukens

Overdone, overwrought, overemphasized and over the top, the word icon gets tossed around a lot today. Not to be confused with the G.O.A.T. (another overused title, sorry, Tom) or the King (sorry, Lebron), people confuse well-known, famous people in sports or entertainment for being iconic. The true definition of being iconic has nothing to do with how many Instagram followers you have, how many fragrances you’ve marketed or what kind of shoes you wear.  Even ten years ago, the Huffington Post had enough, calling icon “one of the world’s most overused words.” 

Here’s what the actual definition of an icon is:

An icon should have a global perspective, be widely recognized and well-established, have a brand name, and be acknowledged for excellence and worthy of respect or reverence.  

That narrows the field a bit. Off the top of my head, iconic people in the media, entertainment and public life could include the Dali Lama, Kurt Cobain, Beyonce, Oprah, Tom Brady, Lebron James and Mother Theresa. In business, we turn to names like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Kate Spade, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs.  But what about Rebecca Pennock Lukens? Before you search social media for her on LinkedIn, IG or Twitter account, you should know she was born in 1794 and died in 1854. Rebecca may have had Western Union telegram and pen pal followers, but she wasn’t on social. 

When you think, as a business owner, about the issues you might be dealing with right now, like family, succession, the aftermath of the pandemic, interest rate hikes, recession, etc., know that Rebecca Pennock Lukens would probably laugh at your plight. Here’s a brief history that answers the why?. 

Rebecca and her husband Charles went into deep debt to refit the ironworks they owned in central Pennsylvania, turning the property into the Brandywine Ironworks in 1818, the first in the country to make boilerplates. Not the sexiest product in the world, boilerplates were basically rolled steel used to construct boilers. It was then that Rebecca’s life turned upside down. 

Four years after settling the debt at Brandywine, their son Isaac died in 1822, her father Isaac Pennock died in 1824, and in 1825, their son Charles died. In June 1825, Rebecca, pregnant with their sixth child, lost her husband, Charles, after a short illness (most deaths at that time were quick and unexpected). Rebecca was left with three daughters, a fourth on the way and a not-yet-solvent Brandywine Ironworks that she didn’t own because her father had died without turning the company over to her and her husband. But she promised her late husband that she wouldn’t stop. 

Rebecca, a Quaker, didn’t gain respect as a woman from her suppliers or employees and had to adjust to the pushback, refusing to back down. By the year 1834, she had survived another major flood, witnessed the arrival of the railroad, paid off all the debts and began to expand. Her husband had predicted the demand for boilerplates would continue to grow, and he was right, with Brandywine being among the first to take most of the market share. Fortune magazine called Rebecca “America’s first female CEO of an industrial company.”

Through her management, Brandywine grew despite more floods, the financial collapse of 1837, a lawsuit over water rights and the failure to get long-term tariffs to protect American products. Courtroom battles followed as her Pennock relatives sued her (don’t you just love family?) over her inheritance of Brandywine and eventually settled out of court, paying them all off. She finally became the sole owner of the property in 1846. Eight years later, Rebecca died at the age of 50. 

So now that you know about Rebecca’s story, let’s go back to the definition of an icon. 

  • Global Perspective (yes)
  • Widely Recognized (in that period – certainly)
  • Well Established – (yes)
  • Brand Name (Rebecca and Brandywine – yes)
  • Excellence (yes)
  • Worthy of Respect or Reverance (how could you not?)

So the next time you hear someone being called iconic, think about Rebecca Pennock Lukens and see if they measure up.  The next time you make excuses for a failing business model or revenue drought, name the pandemic, poor hires, bad partners, divorce, death, a lousy succession, lawsuits, the recession, inflation or even global warming as the culprit – think of Rebecca Pennock Lukens. She never made excuses. She just built an iconic history of perseverance and success.