Urban Research Using Business Records

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Urban Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Urban Research
Urban Research Using Census Records
Urban Research Using Vital Records
Urban Research Using Newspapers
Urban Research Using Religious Sources
Urban Research Using Land Records
Urban Research Using Maps
Urban Research Using Naturalization Records
Urban Research Using Court Records
Urban Research Using Business Records
Sources for Urban Research
List of Useful Urban Research Referencs

This article originally appeared in "Urban Research" by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and John M. Scroggins, MA in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Bankruptcy and tax records lead naturally to another source: professional, business, and employment records. Occupational specialization and the related drive to license specific trades or skills both resulted from urbanization and mass society. Many of these collections belong to institutions that lack the resources to undertake extensive searches; indexes and finding aids may prove spotty; and privacy restrictions sometimes limit access. Still, these records are definitely worth searching.

National professional associations, with membership lists often dating back to the 1800s, produce such records. The American Medical Association, for example, keeps files on its members, and a doctor residing in New York after around 1880 had to register his license with the county clerk and submit an affidavit of his admission to practice. Private associations printed directories, almanacs, and collective biographies with information on their members. This filled a dual need, providing exposure for the budding professional and assuring clients of a given skill in a mobile society. Whatever the purpose, the result for the genealogist is additional information about the newly emergent managerial and professional classes.

Increased interest in business regulation during the same time period stemmed from the same concerns and generated another body of records. The demand for honest retailing inspired Boston to inspect the weights and measures of merchants in that city as early as 1881. Inspection reports, an early type of consumer protection, gave the owner’s name and address and described any action taken as a result of the visit. Similar departments eventually appeared throughout the country. A parallel to this idea in the private sector was the credit report, developed in 1842 by Dunn and Bradstreet. National in scope and detailed in coverage, the reports in the company archives, now at Harvard University Library, can increase understanding of nineteenth-century business practices as well as knowledge of some particular firms. For example, credit investigators recorded many personal aspects in their reports. One noted that his subject had married well; her name and a comment on her father buttressed the opinion that she was a good risk. While researchers should know of the existence of the Dunn and Bradstreet collection, library restrictions make it extremely difficult to gain access to the records.

If you can identify an ancestor with a specific company or business, you may be able to search the records of that business, assuming that it is still extant or that the records have been deposited in a historical society or corporate archive. Business libraries and archives must usually be examined in person because they simply do not have the personnel to respond to mail requests. One source of contact information for business records is the Society of American Archivists’ Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada. Originally compiled in 1997 as a paper publication, the current edition of the directory has been edited and maintained online since 1999 by Gregory S. Hunter at http://www.hunterinformation.com/corporat.htm.

Most major metropolitan areas began as transportation centers, and many records of transportation companies have survived. Maritime records in the National Maritime Museum of San Francisco, the Great Lakes Maritime Institute in Detroit, and the Great Lakes Historical Society in Vermillion, Ohio, near Cleveland, may contain documentation in the form of crew lists or logbooks. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., contains applications for seamen’s protection certificates and files on merchant seamen; the National Archives’ regional archives are currently acquiring inspection and licensing documents from maritime and riparian ports. Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago records have already been transferred; others will follow as they are found.

Rail transportation workers may be traced through corporate archives, union records, or government agencies. The Newberry Library in Chicago has manuscripts from the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad and some from the Pullman Standard Car Company. The South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society (P.O. Box 96, South Holland, IL 60473) has indexed more than 1 million Pullman Company records that are on file at the society. The Chicago Historical Society has acquired some files of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The Railroad Retirement Board, also located in Chicago, is the national pensioning agency for rail workers; its records should be interesting to anyone with an ancestor eligible for a railroad pension. The Railroad Retirement Board, however, did not begin operations until the mid-1930s. Records are limited to individuals associated with the rail industry at or since that time or who were receiving private rail pensions, which were assumed by the board in 1937.

Many municipalities have records of city employees dating back to founding days. Police and firefighter pension records often comprise the greater part of municipal collections. Municipal archives and reference libraries are good sources for these records. Sometimes the municipal departments still hold the documents.

The union movement had many of its roots in the major industrial centers of the country, and some records have survived. Wayne State University in Detroit is the site of the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, which has collected manuscripts from unions all over the country. Its major holdings have come from the United Auto Workers, as might be expected, but some records have come from the American Federation of Teachers, the Newspaper Guild, and the Industrial Workers of the World. The Ohio Historical Society has gathered labor union documents as well, placing many of them in regional repositories, such as the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.


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