Will Shell’s oil future outlast its ocean namesakes?

Oil company's rich history belies its modern day philosophy

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Columnists

December 15, 2021 - 8:15 AM

Royal Dutch Shell named its first oil tanker after a murex shell in honor of its founder's respect for marine life. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

When Royal Dutch Shell’s new chairman, Andrew Mackenzie, asked shareholders on Friday for their vote to move the global oil giant’s headquarters from the Netherlands to Britain and drop the “Royal Dutch,” he was also asking to return the company home.

In a history better suited to fairy tales than the financial pages, Shell rose from a small seashell shop in the East End of London. In the 1830s, a Jewish curio seller named Marcus Samuel began importing tropical seashells from the Far East. His shop sold “small Shells for Ladies’ work,” along with large, shining specimens such as conchs and nautiluses for still-life drawing.

Samuel’s idea to manufacture shell-bejeweled boxes for sale in seaside resorts made the family’s first fortune. He mass-produced the souvenirs and sold them to shops with the tags “A Gift from Brighton,” “A Gift from Margate” and so on. Similar shell boxes are ubiquitous in today’s beach shops from the U.K.’s Brighton to the U.S.’ Outer Banks.

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