The Research Value of Business Records

Documenting Change: Industry and Business in Troy and Rensselaer County, NY

Business records are especially valuable documents. They trace the development of American capitalism: they document the history of technical and managerial innovations, advertising, market development and expansion; they help scholars reconstruct and describe the evolution of labor-management and business-government relations; they preserve the history of unique business and corporate cultures; and they trace the ebb and flow of local and regional economies. Yet the importance of preserving the historical records of American industry – particularly 20th century firms – has unfortunately only recently been widely recognized.

Though American culture, society, and politics have been heavily influenced – some would say “shaped” – by American industry, few local and regional historical societies and museums put much energy into documenting and preserving the records of the economic institutions that were the bedrock of their communities. Few took the time and effort to document the often hidden worlds of innovation, competition, and struggle that lay behind the creation of the material objects they so carefully collected. Similarly, few businessmen and businesswomen recognized the paper treasures that lay mildewing in basement cardboard caskets, or the importance of treasurer’s reports, board-of-directors meeting minutes, memoranda, and transcriptions of labor-management conferences that were filed and forgotten in office or back room file cabinets.

It wasn’t until 1943 that a U.S. corporation – Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. – became the first American company to hire an archivist and initiate an extensive archival program for its records. Then and in the years that followed, only a handful of business leaders recognized what Harvey S. Firestone and his son did – that the preservation of their business’ records fulfilled both a historical as well as a business need. They helped accurately record the historical legacy of their business and aided management in making important decisions related to current and future business problems. Thankfully, in recent decades more and more industrial and business leaders, as well as archivists, have come to share Firestone’s wisdom. Large firms like General Mills, Kraft, Texas Instruments, Philips Petroleum and others have established business archives and hired professionals to maintain them. Historical societies increasingly collect business records. Academic libraries aggressively bid for the privilege of becoming official repositories of corporate archives.

The Rensselaer County Historical Society, in documenting the industrial transformation of Troy and Rensselaer in the post-WWII era, has thus joined a most worthy and important movement. This documentation project reflects the progress made over the last half-century, as well as the work that still needs to be done. It marks the beginning of a long-term effort aimed at remedying a tradition of neglect — a recognition by archivists and industrialists alike that through cooperative efforts the industrial legacy of Rensselaer County will no longer be forgotten or destroyed.

Prof. Gerald Zahavi
University at Albany, SUNY
July 1996

Documenting Change: Project Description and Methodology

Documenting Change: Industry and Business in Troy and Rensselaer County, NY

Troy and Rensselaer both have long histories as centers of industry and commerce that go back to the late 18th century. First the iron and steel industries and then the clothing and textile industries played key roles in the economy of both communities. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, heavy industries began to move out of the area to be closer to sources of raw materials and cheaper labor. During all phases of their development, these industries shaped not only the economy but also the geography of these cities and the lives of their residents. The records that document the impact of industry and subsequent deindustrialization in Troy and Rensselaer have been largely uncatalogued and, in many cases, unidentified until now. Efforts at revitalization, which began just after World War II and continue today, have taken the form of a fundamental shift away from heavy manufacturing. The industries and other businesses that have slowly filled the gaps left by earlier industries have tended to focus their production in high technology and services like insurance and health care. Institutionally, it has become apparent that RCHS needs to look at this more recent past and at collection materials and documentation that reflect the many changes and groups that have affected the history of the county since World War II. This project adds important information to the base which will be used to assess RCHS’s current collections and future collecting directions during the next few years.

The people who worked for and ran these businesses have formed the bulk of the population of these two communities and have had their own impact on the life of the two cities. The records that document their private lives are generally unavailable for research. Institutional records, however, can provide glimpses of these lives through personnel records, information on production, etc. More importantly, these records can help to identify forces that shaped the communities in terms of labor practices, economic ups and downs and provide a context for the individuals’ lives. The documentation project looked for typical business archival materials including charters, incorporation papers, correspondence files, financial papers, personnel files, advertising materials, photographic records of the firms as well as product information and samples. Smaller firms and firms that did related work for the bigger industries are hard to document and an attempt has been made to locate their records. Equally important is the identification of businesses that have developed to fill the gap left by deindustrialization and newer firms were contacted for information about their records. The Rensselaer County Regional Chamber of Commerce has been particularly helpful in identifying firms involved in revitalization.

The first project task was to identify industries that were here just prior to World War II and then identify the ones that stayed open, left the area for other locations afterwards or stopped production altogether. The Project Archivist used the RCHS research library and many other repositories for this background work. Some of the largest firms’ records are in institutions, i.e. Cluett, Peabody & Co., Inc. records are at RCHS. Other firms who have stayed in business, like the Ross Valve Company in Troy, have records that would be valuable research materials but are not currently accessible in any form. Records of newer firms that are part of revitalization efforts, such as some of the high technology firms that began in the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s incubator program, have records which they often do not realize are valuable for researchers.

Because records of the recent past are not generally available, the materials surveyed and described in this resource guide add substantially to the body of information available to scholars and others with an interest in the period. When dealing with newer firms that are actively in business there may be some hesitation in providing access to records, particularly for competitive reasons. Access issues were discussed and access notes are provided in the guide. Materials documented in the survey will have a variety of potential uses in terms of immediately adding to the limited information known about post World War II Troy and Rensselaer. They will also be used for RCHS programming at a variety of levels. The results of the survey will be available to any other interested group or individual at the RCHS research library. RCHS also plans to share the results of the survey with the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway in Troy and the City of Rensselaer Historical Society, two organizations that are already involved in this field, and other libraries, town historians and historical societies. In addition, those businesses and organizations that participated in the survey will receive copies of the final report. RCHS plans to mount the guide on its World Wide Web site opening this fall. Finally, it is important to realize that most of these records are still in private or corporate hands. RCHS is committed to working with record holders to help preserve this valuable resource and increase the awareness of their importance today and for years to come.

Stacy Pomeroy Draper, Project Director
Philip B. Eppard, Project Archivist

Ashe Manufacturing Company

Documenting Change: Industry and Business in Troy and Rensselaer County, NY

Historical Note: Ashe Manufacturing was a carding and spinning mill that made woolen cloth and sweaters. It was founded by Patrick Francis Ashe in 1920 and located on Green Street in Rensselaer. After Ashe’s death in 1934, the business was run by his wife and then sold to another mill operator from outside of the area. The mill remained active through World War II and was a major supplier of sweaters and possibly uniform cloth for the United States military. The mill closed in 1948.

Records of Ashe Manufacturing Company have not been located and according to Matthew Ashe, the son of the founder, were presumably discarded. Matthew Ashe has retained some samples of the firm’s products, however.