A unique business history treasure

A unique business history treasure has been unearthed at the Swedish Centre for Business History.

It comprises two large cardboard boxes, filled with hundreds of photographs, notes and letters.

Among them are unique photos from The Shanghai Mutual Telephone Company Limited, which gave Ericsson its first major export order to China.

In 1906 building work started on the telephone exchange in Shanghai, and when it was taken into use they engaged a photographer to document the occasion. His photos depict a grand stone building, and interiors where exchange operators are connecting calls. There is also a group portrait of the employees and a photograph from the workshop. It is evident that they were proud of the telephone exchange, which was also the first office building of the newly established Shanghai Mutual Telephone Company Ltd.

The photographs of the telephone exchange are only a small part of the extensive archive material, which includes hundreds of photographs and letters, as well as notes, books and artifacts.

The man who had the new telephone exchange built was the Swede Gustaf Öberg, also MD of The Shanghai Mutual Telephone Company Ltd. Öberg had already started to import Ericsson telephones into China in the 1890s. He was a Swedish sea captain, but he lived in Shanghai. During the first few years of the 20th century he set up the telephone company together with other Chinese businessmen, and by 1906 it was so successful that they were able to build the enormous exchange and office building. 
Captain Öberg was very familiar with the culture and economy of China, and from the very outset he recognized the potential of the telephone. Formal business meetings in China required pomp and ceremony, with sedan chairs, horses and servants. Doing business deals over the phone saved money. Öberg believed that the Chinese understood this, and in a letter left behind he predicted that Ericsson could become one of the biggest companies in the world.

After his success in Shanghai, Öberg wanted to set up telephone companies in other cities. But he failed with the telephone exchange in Canton (now known as Guangzhou), and the First World War put an end to any more import business. Gustaf Öberg died in 1920, a well-respected businessman, and nine years later The Shanghai Mutual Telephone Company Ltd was sold.

This unique archive material is owned by Peter Oljelund, whose maternal grandmother, Linda Öberg, was Gustaf Öberg’s daughter. Among the property left behind there are also artifacts, including an egg-shaped wooden case that was used as a lunchbox, Öberg’s Chinese clothes and his personal chopsticks in an ornamental case.

Gustaf Öberg was separated from his family for long periods, but he lived, as was the manner of wealthy Europeans at the turn of the last century, with travel as a natural element of life. Which is why there are photos of Russian refugees in Nanking, horse races in Shanghai and riding trips in China, as well as tourist photos from cities such as Kyoto and Copenhagen.

Author: Per Wikström

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