Locating Business Records
| Business Records
This article is part of a series.
|Overview of Business Records|
|Business Owner Records|
|Locating Business Records|
This article originally appeared in "Business, Institution, and Organization Records" by Kay Haviland Freilich, CG, CGL, and Ann Carter Fleming, CG, CGL in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy
Once you know the name of your ancestor’s business or place of employment (both former and present if still in operation), several finding aids are available in most public and research libraries to locate business records.
Interestingly enough, the survival of historical business records may turn out to be more likely for records created before 1900 than since. These early records were kept in bound volumes; some had subject or name indexes. Customer orders were kept in order books and invoices in invoice books. Correspondence was copied into letter books and accounts were entered, transaction by transaction, into ledger books. The pre-1890 system was based on double-entry bookkeeping. After 1890, index cards were popular because that data could be easily sorted and arranged. Carbon copies came into use around 1900, and loose-leaf binders, folders, and envelope-like jackets for storage were in use by the 1920s.
The success or failure of your search may depend on your correspondence with the company. Remember when contacting companies that, while they may be consumer-conscious, genealogy is not their business. In your initial letter, explain that you have an interest in the company’s history because of a family connection and would like to know if information such as that found in personnel and employment records is available. Remember, these are generally private records, and company policy may restrict access to them.
Many companies prefer to control the searches of their archives themselves, allowing access only to trained staff or volunteers. For example, the Pullman Car Works established search arrangements with the South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society for its massive file of personnel records. Only society members who belong to the “Pullman Committee” may search records for the more than 200,000 individuals in the collection. Address all requests to the South Suburban Genealogical and Historical Society, 3000 West 170th Place, Hazel Crest, Illinois 60429-1174 or visit their site. A search fee on some searches supports the maintenance of the collection.
Almost every manuscript collection has some kind of guide to indicate its contents, and many have online catalogs to search. If the Genealogical Society of Utah microfilmed the collection, a copy is available in the Family History Library Catalog under the locality with which the record is concerned and is available at the Family History Library or on loan through its Family History Centers. Indentures for Spotsylvania County, Virginia, are found under that county in the catalog.
In New York City, the minutes of the Civil Court Quarter Sessions contain petitions of release from apprentices whose masters have moved from the town. Indenture records of passengers to America are usually in the city where the ship landed—such port cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York.
Genealogical and historical societies are publishing colonial business records, either as books or as articles in periodicals. Either the Genealogical Periodical Annual Index (GPAI) or Periodical Source Index (PERSI) will help with a literature search for that area. See Introduction to the General References and Guides Series for more details.
For ancestors about whom little is known other than a very general occupational description from a census record or city directory, it may be necessary to consult other sources to identify possible business connections before trying to locate business records. A variety of dictionaries and directories, as discussed next, may be helpful in this regard.
Collections of biographies can be very helpful to researchers since they determine the business activities of an ancestor who would not be the subject of an individual book. Some collections are based on a specific occupation, such as the legal directories mentioned previously. For Pennsylvania ancestors with political activities, the recent Lawmaking and Legislators: A Biographical Dictionary includes sketches of members of the Pennsylvania state government. (You can find links to all three volumes below.
Men of many occupations were included in biographical dictionaries as were people who achieved some prominence in a vocation. In Biographical Sketches of Knox County (Ohio) Writers, Mary Q. Elliott included a brief sketch of James Blair, a local farmer who wrote poems that were occasionally published in local newspapers. The sketch indicated that Blair originally came from Blairs Valley, Washington County, Maryland. Subsequent research in Blairs Valley extended the line two more generations.
A variety of specialized sources are available, such as the Biographical Directory of Railway Officials of America, published since 1885.
Robert B. Slocum’s Biographical Dictionaries and Related Works lists dozens of books about authors and others distinguished by their vocations. Indeed, Slocum’s entire second volume is a list of vocational collective biographies.
Some directories profile major figures in American history. Many of these individuals were prominent businessmen. Major national collective biographies include the Dictionary of American Biography (first published in 1922), the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, and a wide variety of “who’s who” publications. The Cyclopedia began in 1898 by the James T. White Company of New York to give biographical coverage to business leaders, especially young men from the west, with information supplied by the subjects themselves.
Most of these nationwide dictionaries are indexed in [Biography and Genealogy Master Index], It is easy to check and is available in most research libraries.
With the conclusion of the Civil War and the reunification of the country, American business began to grow rapidly. As businesses grew, so did the amount of records they kept. Only two to six ancestors may have been in the labor force around the year 1900, but odds are that half of them were either working for someone else (hence employed) or in business for themselves (thus creating their own business records). By 1880, farming involved only fifty percent of the work force, and even farming activities were more regularly documented.
Photographs in family records, even unidentified ones, often show owners and employees of local shops and mercantile businesses standing in front of the company sign.
Most residential directories (both city and rural) include the employer’s name for each listing. It does not matter if the ancestor lived in a small town or a large city, as directories exist for most areas. The following extract from the 1922 directory of Missoula, Montana, then considered a small town, shows the kind of information you can expect to find.
- Sterriet George H. lab Missoula White P S Co. h rear 601 Phillips
- Stetson Harry E, mail carrier R F D 2
- Stevens Clare, appr G A Meisinger, r 1529 De Foe
- Stevens Harry H, driver, h 208 S 3rd W
- Stevens John M, carmn N O Ry, r 117 N 2n W
- Stevens Lyman W brkmn N P Ry, r 117 N 2n W
- Stevens Russell, student, r 405 S 1st W
- Stevenson Derrick, moved to Boxeman, Mont
- Stewart C Donald, clk C M & St P Ry, h 246 Edith
- Stewart Dee, chauf H L Haines, r 314 W Railroad
- Stewart Fleming K, surveyor Forest Service, r Grand Hotel
- Stewart Jas A, firemn N P Ry, h 402 W Cedar
- Stewart Leighton, formn N P Ry, h 1520 S 7th W
- Stewart R D, clk, h Orchard Homes R F D 1
- Stewart Thomas, car opr, h Orchard Homes R F D 4
- Stewart Wm m, mgr Traffic Service Vureau, h Rattlesnake
- Sticht Bert, lab Anton Vogt & Sons, h East Missoula
- Sticht Glenn, lab Anton Vogt & Sons, h East Missoula
Note that both the occupation and employer are given. The Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR) appears to have been a major employer. Bert and Glenn Sticht are laborers for Anton Vogt and Sons. This valuable information was previously not known to Sticht family historians.
Local history sources can also identify business firms with which a relative was associated. Centennial histories or local scrapbooks published in special sections of the newspaper or issued separately for distribution at local celebrations often carry lists of historical businesses.
The best method of finding records of existing businesses is to contact the business directly. Although locating addresses for the thousands of smaller companies may require some sleuthing, contact information for the largest companies are found in many sources. One excellent layman’s guide to four hundred of the largest U.S. companies is Milton Meskowitz’s Everybody’s Business: A Field Guide to the 400 Leading Companies in America. This book profiles each company in everyday terms, avoiding business jargon and technical language. Among information of interest to a genealogist would be the year of founding, the company’s history, the number of employees, and most importantly, whom to contact at the home office for general information. Other books useful for locating company contact information are in the List of Useful Business, Institution, and Organization Resources.
The complicated world of modern business often makes it difficult to determine whether a company is independent or a subsidiary of a larger corporation. Dun and Bradstreet’s annual America’s Corporate Families helps to clarify the confusion. This directory includes the “family tree” of 11,000 U.S. parent corporations and their 60,000 subsidiaries, indicating which companies own which others. It lists the mergers, acquisitions, name changes, divisions, subsidiaries, and affiliates of most major American corporations.
Once you know the company you are looking for, you still need to know where the office is located. The annual Ward’s Business Directory of U.S. Private and Public Companies is considered by many to be the best directory in its field and is useful for both large and small companies. In it, each company is listed alphabetically, geographically, by industry, and by amount of sales. Current business address and telephone numbers are provided. The Ward’s Business Directory may be available through one of your public library subscription databases.
Several other sources list business firms from the past or supply the clues needed to determine the name of a historical business and its dates of operation. Using these records is complicated; so much so that the process has been called the “dragnet” strategy by William G. Roy in “Collecting Data on American Business Officials in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century.” These materials are available in public and research libraries.
In addition to Dun and Bradstreet’s Directory of Corporate Affiliations and Million Dollar Directory, the Robert D. Fisher Manual of Valuable and Worthless Securities lists businesses reorganized, liquidated, or dissolved. Both directories are published annually and are available in the business/economic section of most public and university libraries.
Other directories include Poor’s Manual of Railroads and Moody’s Manuals with separate volumes for railroads, municipal governments, banks and finance, and public utilities. Published annually since 1900 by Moody’s Investors Service, Inc., a division of Dun and Bradstreet, these directories omit some of the most important companies, such as Carnegie Steel and Standard Oil. They are also less likely to cover decentralized industries, such as books, shoes and boots, and the lumber industry.
Trade Association Directories
Members of most vocations have banded together to exchange information, learn from each other, assess competition, and provide referrals. Generally, these groups have taken the form of trade associations, most of which publish regular directories of their members. Farley’s Reference Directory of Booksellers, Stationers, and Printers in the U.S. and Canada, published since 1886, and the Pocket Directory of Shoe Manufacturers, published by the Boot and Shoe Reporter since 1907, are examples of trade directories—although they are now, like most older directories, superseded by different directories and titles. The National Electric Light Association (1923), the National Retail Dry Goods Association (1934), and the National Fire Protection Association (1935) are some of the trade associations that publish directories of members with their specific affiliations. Current trade association directories are listed in the annual Directories in Print.
Several references provide information on associations. Encyclopedia of Associations, published biannually by Gale Research Company, includes precise addresses, telephone numbers, titles, and frequency of bulletins and newsletters published, library information services offered, employment exchanges, and many other facts and figures for trade associations, many of which have a continuous history from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Information about more than 12 million current businesses is available at http://www.referenceusa.com. This Internet-based reference service may be available through your local library.
Periodicals and news sheets have been published for the shipping and maritime industry, for agriculture, and for many other trades since the mid-nineteenth century. Books about an industry may include a discussion of periodicals devoted to the industry. For example, a list of agricultural journals is in Albert L. Demaree’s The American Agricultural Press, 1819–1860. Periodical sources are traditional materials to consult when checking for historical businesses of any size, and they are as close as your nearest research library. However, if local libraries do not have the volumes you want, check collections in libraries of those cities and towns where the industry was most common. For example, try Pittsburgh for the steel industry, San Francisco or Seattle for the Pacific shipping trade, and Atlanta and Savannah for the turpentine industry.
In 1959, the Library of Congress began a catalog of manuscripts housed throughout the country. Known as the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), it is issued yearly with information on more than two thousand newly cataloged manuscript collections each year.
Through the 1993 catalog (the last catalog to be published), approximately 72,300 collections located in 1,406 repositories had been identified. These annual print catalogs are indexed, and comprehensive cumulative indexes cover 1959 to 1962, 1963 to 1966, 1967 to 1969, and every four or five years thereafter. After 1993, an electronic database was used in lieu of more print editions. This database continues to incorporate current catalog additions and has been made retroactive to 1985. This database can be accessed online, along with a list of frequently asked questions. A list of repositories that currently participate in NUCMC is available online.
A wealth of information on defunct and current business and employment records can be found in these indexes. For example, Joseph Stulb of Philadelphia worked for Schrack and Company, a nineteenth-century paint firm. The NUCMC index lists the following:
- STULB, Joseph Jr. 72–121
- SCHRACK (C.) and Company, Philadelphia, Pa 72–121
This citation means that they both appear in the collection cataloged 72–121, which was the 121st collection cataloged in 1972. The Schrack entry reads as follows:
- MS 72-121
- Schrack (C) and company, Philadelphia, Pa. Records, 1808–1938. ca. 200,000 items.
- In Eleutherian Mills Historical Library (Greenville, Del.) (various accessions)
- Correspondence, accounts, bills and receipts, stock books, formula books (1844–1912), orders, shipping records, banking records, and other business records of a paint, varnish, and color manufacturing firm. Persons represented include Christian Schrack (ca. 1790–1854.), founder of the firm, who began business as a carriage builder; his partner, Joseph Stulb (d. 1898); Stulb’s sons, Edwin H Stulb (1850–1920) and Joseph Stulb Jr.; his grandsons, Joseph Reichert Stulb (b.1883) and Edwin H. Stulb, Jr.; and Townsend Willits.
- In part, described in A guide to the Manuscripts in the Eleutherian Mills Historical Library, by John B. Riggs (1970) p. 970–971.
- Gift 1966 and purchases, 1965–68.
This collection is a wonderful find—approximately two hundred thousand items pertaining to Schrack and Company, Joseph Stulb, his sons, and his grandsons. The entry indicates that the collection is not in Philadelphia or even in Pennsylvania, but rather in a historical library in Delaware. It is worth noting that NUCMC also includes the manuscript collections of several labor unions.
A special cumulative index to the printed NUCMC volumes will speed the finding of business-related collections. This is the three-volume companion publication, Corporate Names Index, 1959–1984. This work brings together the names of corporate entities that appeared in the NUCMC for the years indicated. As indicated in the Schrack and Company example, NUCMC helps to identify collections that are “out of place” rather than in the repositories where they might be expected to be found.
Obviously, not all manuscript collections have been cataloged in NUCMC. Thousands of specific archives also exist that may be affiliated with the company you are researching. The Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States, published by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, describes the manuscript holdings of 4,225 repositories and identifies 335 additional institutions. Arranged geographically, the directory also includes a list of repositories by type, including corporate archives, local historical societies, organizational archives, state and university archives, and thirteen other types of repositories. However, even this list is not complete. The directory itself estimates that between six thousand and eleven thousand such repositories exist in the country, any number of which may contain business records. The Repositories of Primary Sources provides 5,250 websites that describe manuscripts and archival collections.
Historical Society Holdings
Numerous business records have been deposited in historical societies across the country. Most societies publish an annual report, a quarterly journal, archive inventories, and/or guides to their principal collections in which each set of records is described with dates, names of owners, types of records deposited, restrictions on use (if any), and size of collection. Sample entries from Manuscripts of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania follow. The collection includes both company and personal business records.
- 1009. PHILADELPHIA CENTRE SQUARE WATERWORKS. 1801–6. 1 Vol. Presented by the Jenkintown Trust Co., 1936. List of first Subscribers.
- 1019. PHILADELPHIA INSURANCE COMPANY. 1814–45. 1 vol. Presented by Mrs. Howard W. Page, 1934. Minutes, accounts, names of officers, and records of general transactions.
- 1025. PHILADELPHIA SUGAR REFINING COMPANY RECORDS. 1812. 1 vol. Presented by A.C. Kline, 1863. Articles of association, list of stockholders, constitution, bylaws, and other data.
- 108. PERSONAL and PROFESSIONAL RECORDS. 1676–1904. Approximately 500 vols.
- John Q. A. McConkey, canal boat owner and shipper (Delaware and Raritan Canal), invoice book, 1877–79, 1 vol.
- Mary Ann, John Q.A., and James McConkey, canal boat transportation, boat book, 1847–80. 1 vol.
- William McCorkle, advertising and periodical dealer, ledger 1804–87, 1 vol.
- James McCurrah and Company, shipping agents, accounts current, 1790–96. 1 vol.: letter book, 1794–1800. 1 vol.
- George Mead, shipper and general merchant, receipt book, 1784–88, 1 vol.
- David Meredith, Philadelphia merchant, memorandum, and account book, 1813–17, 1 vol.
- Jonathan Meredith, Philadelphia tanner, hide accounts, waste, leather, sales, bark, ledger, day, and blotter books, 1784–1800, 34 vols.
The most comprehensive coverage of unique library collections is Subject Collections: A Guide to Special Book Collections and Subject Emphasis, edited by Lee Ash. It is especially valuable for special manuscript collections in public libraries, which are not described in other publications. Sample entries under Business are as follows:
- Atlanta Public Library, Ivan Allen, Jr. Dept. of Science.
- Industry & Government. Richard L. Tubesing, Head.
- 10 Pryor Street Atlanta, GA 30303
- Vols. (15,000) Cat. Microfilms
- Budget ($75,000)
- Notes: This collection incl. on microform annual reports and Securities Exchange Commission 10-k reports for some 11,000 companies from 1976 to date; current and retrospective stock quotations, stock reports, corporate and industry records and directories and supporting loose-leaf services; information file on Atlanta’s largest 10,000 companies from 1976 to date, with annual updates; and current plat maps for the five county Metro-Atlanta area. Atlanta and Georgia business history sections are being developed. Most material in this collection is non-circulating. Telephone ready reference service is provided.
- Pomona Public Library, Special Collections
- David Streeter, Libn.
- 625 S. Garey Avenue
- Mailing Add.: P.O. Box 2271
- Pomona, CA 91766
- Uncat. Mss.
- Notes: 165 linear feet of Pomona Valley business records incl. 16 water companies and 28 citrus companies; diaries; clubs and organizations; Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Special bibliographies also carry references to business archives. An annotated list of more than four hundred articles and books on business archives is in Karen M. Benedict’s A Select Bibliography on Business Archives and Records Management. An example of a bibliography that includes reference to business archives is Oral History Collection, edited and compiled by Alan M. Meckler and Ruth McMullin. In it, oral history programs are listed by company, project, or person. Some sample entries follow:
- WEYERHAEUSER, C.D. with C.S. Martin, Weyerhaeuser Timber Company (98 pages, permission required) Columbia University NY.
- WEYERHAEUSER, CHARLES A. Discussed in Columbia University interview with William L. Maxwell.
- WEYERHAEUSER, FREDERICK KING (1895–___) Industrialist. Weyerhaeuser Timber Company (1956, 167 pages, permission required) Columbia University NY.
- WEYERHAEUSER, JOHN PHILIP, JR. (1899-1956) Weyerhaeuser Timber Company (41 pages, permission required) Columbia University NY. Discussed in Columbia University interview with Albert B. Curtis.
- WEYERHAEUSER TIMBER COMPANY
Participants and pages: Volume I: A.E. Aitchison, 85; John Aram, 98; David H. Bartlett, 59; Jack Bishop, 32; Ralph Boyd, 26; Hugh B. Campbell 32; Norton Clapp, 32; R.V. Clute, 65; T.S. Durment, 45; O.D. Fisher, 73; A.N. Frederickson, 71; John H. Hauberg, 126; E.F. Heacox, C.S. Martin and C.D. Weyerhaeuser, 98; F.W. Hewitt, 66; Robert W. Hunt, 85; C.H. Ingram, 12; R.E. Irwin, 40; S.P. Johns, Jr., 46; Don Lawerence, 66; George S. Long, Jr., 46 R.R. Macartney, 44; Charles J. McGough, 66 William L. Maxwell, 112; Howard Morgan, 54; C.R. Musser, 27; Leonard H. Nygaard, 49; Harold H. Ogle, 47; Arthur Priaulx and James F. Stevens, 75; Al Raught, 54; Otto C. Schoenwerk, 40; A. O. Sheldon, 41; H.C. Shelworth, 77; Frand Tarr, 17; G. Harris Thomas, 63; David S. Troy, 36; Roy Voshmik,16; John A. Wahl, 18; Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser, 167; J. Philip Weyerhaeuser, 41; Maxwell W. Williamson, 38. Volume II; Earl R. Bullock, 32; Albert B. Curtis, 103; Wells Gilbert, 26; Roy Huffman, 68; W.K. McNair, 33; Leslie Mallory, 13 S.G. and C.D. Moon, 32; Jack Morgan, 43; J.J. O’Connell, 77; R.E. Saberson, 81; Hugo Schlenck, 113; Gaylord M. Upington and Lafayette Stephens, 75 (1956, 2981 pages, permission required) Columbia University NY.
Each issue of the American Archivist, published quarterly by the Society of American Archivists since 1936, contains reviews of new archival guides and “News and Notes” describing the transfer of business records to local archives. To keep track of new collections made available for research, genealogists must review every issue of the American Archivist. Copies are available at public and research libraries.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Evaluation and Preservation of Business Archives,” American Archivist 1 (October 1938): 171–85.
- Craig W. Horle, et al., Lawmaking and Legislators in Pennsylvania: A Biographical Dictionary, 3 vols, 1682–1709; 1710–1756; 1757–1775 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, 1997, 2005).
- Mary Q. Elliott, Biographical Sketches of Knox County (Ohio) Writers (Mount Vernon, Ohio: 1937).
- T. A. Busbey, Biographical Directory of Railway Officials of America (Chicago: Railway Age, 1901). Published biennually since 1885. An online index to individuals connected with St. Louis metropolitan area appearing in biennial years 1887–1985 is at http://www.slpl.lib.mo.us/libsrc/railroar.htm.
- Robert B. Slocum, Biographical Dictionaries and Related Works (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1986).
- Missoula City Directory (Missoula, Mont.: R. L. Polk and Co., 1922), 271. h means “house,” r means “resides at.”
- Milton Meskowitz, Everybody’s Business: A Field Guide to the 400 Leading Companies in America (New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990).
- Dun and Bradstreet, America’s Corporate Families (Parsippany, N.J.: Duns’s Marketing Services) annual.
- Ward’s Business Directory of U.S. Private and Public Companies (Petaluma, Calif.: Baldwin H. Ward), annual, available online at http://www.galegroup.com/pdf/facts/wards.pdf.
- William G. Roy, “Collecting Data on American Business Officials in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century,” Historical Methods 15 (Fall 1982): 143–51.
- Robert D. Fisher. Manual of Valuable and Worthless Securities (New York: R. D. Fisher), serial.
- Directories in Print (Detroit: Gale Research Co.), annual.
- Albert L. Demaree, The American Agricultural Press, 1819–1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), 393–400.
- National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1972), 20.
- National Historical Publications and Records Commission, Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1988), available at http://www.oryxpress.com.
- Manuscripts of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: the society, n.d.).
- Lee Ash, ed., Subject Collections: A Guide to Special Book Collections and Subject Emphasis, 7th ed. (Providence, N.J.: R. R. Bowker Co., 1993).
- Karen M. Benedict, A Select Bibliography on Business Archives and Records Management (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1981).
- Alan M. Meckler and Ruth McMullin, comps. and eds., Oral History Collection (New York: R. R. Bowker Co., 1975).
- Researching Business, Institution, and Organization Records
- Institution and Organization Records
- List of Useful Business, Institution, and Organization Resources