Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Unexpected Finds in Business Correspondence

I've been processing the New York Chamber of Commerce records for about two and a half months now, not including the two days spent in a warehouse in New Jersey (an explanation of those two days deserves its own--forthcoming--post). In an attempt to start organizing what I'm guessing is going to be the biggest series in this collection, I've spent quite a bit of time looking at documents related to the Committee on Arbitration. When the assistant project archivist began work on the collection, I set her up to continue processing the series so I could take a much needed break from the arbitration committee and begin looking at all the "miscellaneous" boxes that had amassed unexpectedly. Of course, "miscellaneous" turned out to be mostly arbitration committee related. Specifically, it is correspondence from the 1910s and 1920s between Charles Bernheimer, then Chairman of the Committee on Arbitration, and various businesses, organizations, and manufacturers in and out of New York City.

I'll be the first to admit that I am not a history buff. Nor have I ever been much interested in business and industry. When my dad encouraged me to take business courses in college, I instead signed up for a course on 20th century European drama (Ibsen to Churchill) and one on women and Japanese fiction (the Tale of the Genji to Banana Yoshimoto). Needless to say, although excited about the challenges of this project from the beginning, I wasn't too sure that the content was going to be of much interest to me. Looking through Bernheimer's correspondence, I came across several letters from all sorts of companies and organizations that caught my eye, namely because they had some amazing stationery. Although stationery of today seems to rely mostly on abstract graphics, seals, or company logos, these letterheads were much more graphically interesting, usually advertising the business's products. The images below are examples of some of my favorites:

I'm sure that the majority of the researchers who use this collection will be business historians, New York City historians, and others with similar interests, but I thought I would point out that archival collections are often rich in graphically interesting materials, sometimes in places you wouldn't think to look. Letterheads, stylized posters, pamphlets, and drawings of all kinds . . . one of my favorite things to come across in a sheaf of administrative records are the doodles and cartoons of a bored note taker. In the age of CAD and digital cameras and Photoshop, it's nice to come across a really lovely hand drawing of an elevator shaft, isn't it? Anyway, even if you aren't interested in looking at architectural drawings or business pamphlets, a quick scan through letterheads of certain decades can turn up some nice finds. (By the way, that pin in the corner of the last letterhead is not part of the illustration, its one of the many fasteners used before paper clips and staples were the norm.)


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