Overview of Business Records
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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
Businesses have employed or served our ancestors at least since the first mill was built to grind grain or saw wood, and a surprising number of employer-employee or buyer-seller records were kept and have survived. The value of business and employment records becomes evident when you consider that many vital events were not recorded by some states until after 1900. Business records are a broad and varied set of records. They include, of course, those records that a business may have kept regarding its customers or employees.
However, researchers must not overlook other records created during a business’s existence, even when such records may fall into another genealogical category. These can include local licenses permitting a business to operate (government records), histories of a specific business or an industry, biographical collections of a company’s officers or an industry’s leaders (in both manuscript and published form), city directories identifying businesses and their owners and employees, and even old photographs naming the photographer. City directories, similar to today’s telephone books, included both business information and residential information. Agricultural census records provide information about our ancestors’ farming activities, whether for personal or business purposes. In some cases, a business created other records that we also can use in genealogy. Newspapers and mortuary records are the products of businesses, although we seldom label them as business records. While the focus of this section is on the records created by businesses, other records related to the existence of a business or an industry will be noted where especially useful.
Researchers should also not overlook business records of organizations such as churches. Directories, lists of ministers, histories, and ledger books may add valuable pieces to the story of an ancestor. Likewise, researchers should consider the wide scope of businesses when searching for records. While not often thought of as such, sporting activities like horse breeding and baseball leagues are considered businesses and have thus created various records. In Tennessee, breeders received licenses, and those from Knox County are available on microfilm at the LDS Family History Library (1,020,331, item 2) in Salt Lake City and through its network of Family History Centers. The National Farmers Union began in Texas in 1902 as a business to promote legislation to benefit farmers. Statistics kept by organized sporting leagues not only identify an ancestor’s occupation, they show the level of talent for that occupation.
Throughout America’s history, private business concerns have created a huge variety and number of records about themselves and had an equal number of records created about them by others. The information contained in these records can be used in at least three significant ways during genealogical research. (1) On occasion, they provide important genealogical information in the absence of traditional information—as, for instance, a mortuary record where a death or cemetery record cannot be found. (2) More commonly, they provide clues that may lead to other, traditional genealogical records, such as an account book that places the ancestor in a specific location at a certain date. (3) Another important use is to “flesh out” an ancestor’s personal history, making him or her “come alive” as an individual.
A common misconception in using business records is our image of rural America as being comprised largely of farmers until the last generation or so. As evidence of this point, it is not well known that by 1880 more than half of the population were engaged in nonfarming occupations.1 A breakdown by professions shows that by 1910 agriculture was outnumbered by the combination of manufacturing and trades.2
Business and employment records include our ancestors in at least four situations:
A researcher must pay attention to all of these situations for each ancestor. Even self-employed ancestors who kept few records and had no employees, such as farmers, can appear as customers of someone else’s business. The value of employment records is especially apparent for immigrant ancestors, many of whom settled in large cities, where the nation’s largest businesses were also typically located. (See chapter Overview of Urban Research for information on city research.)
Using business records may not be easy. First, in order to find them you must know your ancestor’s location and profession. Even then they can be difficult to find, and those that do exist may be few and far between. Many records no longer exist. Of those that do, some are much more complete than others and may include birthplace, residence (previous and concurrent to employment), relatives and family members, education level, and employment history. Almost none of the records are indexed. Many are stored in locations that make consulting them very difficult, and others have been destroyed or lost through the years. Most business records are private, as were the businesses they chronicle. If the business is still operating, it may not allow access to its records. If the business is defunct, the records will be hard to find. Still, the kind of information and breakthrough possibilities available mean that business records simply should not be overlooked.
Most likely your ancestor did not work for the same employer for the entire length of his or her lifetime. As you search, give priority to the records of the company where he or she worked the longest or to the most recent employer, as recent records are typically more complete. Other suggestions for locating pertinent records are given throughout the chapter.
The following examples illustrate the wide variety of business records kept in local and state collections throughout the United States:
- The University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee has fire and police department records from 1927 to 1963. Some are online at http://www.uwm.edu/libraries/arch/safety.htm.
- The St. Louis Board of Pharmacy has preserved the records of druggists’ licenses from 1893 through 1909.
- The Smith-Townsend papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society include the business papers of two generations of Townsend, Massachusetts, businessmen up to 1870.
- The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has the minute book of the Carolina Narrow Gauge Railroad Company from 1872 to 1897.
- The National Archives—Pacific Region in San Bruno, California, has customhouse records for the port of San Francisco.
- The Georgia Department of Archives and History has licenses and bonds for selling liquor from 1850 to 1901.
- The Stevens Family Papers at the New Jersey Historical Society include extensive documentation on the Hoboken Land Improvement Company.
- Researching Business, Institution, and Organization Records
- List of Useful Business, Institution, and Organization Resources