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