Monday, June 23, 2008

Monday Diversions

Since it's Monday and appropriately cloudy with rain in the forecast, I thought I'd take a break from meeting minutes and correspondence and turn my attention to something a little more entertaining--invitations. The Chamber of Commerce held a lavish banquet each year, presumably to congratulate themselves on another year gone and to honor various distinguished guests and members. According to a NYCC publication, for each banquet between the Civil War and World War I,

"an eminent Banquet Committee devoted painstaking attention to an appropriate design for the Program, which was then hand-engraved and colored by Tiffany & Co. Messengers delivered all invitations to the homes of members and their guests."

The NYCC collection holds some samples of these invitations and programs, which I've been organizing this morning. Here is the invitation for the banquet of 1889, held at Delmonico's (a New York restaurant which is still in operation):

Here's a closeup of the Tiffany & Co. signature in the lower right hand corner:

Impressive, no? It's especially interesting to contrast the 1889 invitation with this invitation from 1950:

Hmm. As an archivist, I think I'm supposed to maintain an objective view, and there's that whole thing about not judging a book by its cover, but if I had to chose one or the other to attend, I'm pretty sure I would transport myself back in time to 1889. These guys seem like they would probably agree with me:

That image is from the 1913 banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria where guests were treated to a six course dinner. We don't have the menu for that dinner, but I think it's safe to say that it was probably rather luxurious.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

"A Wonderful Adventure"

I just finished reading The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. The novel is set in the United States and Europe in the early 1900's, and traces the lives of Americans as they faced the First World War, the market crash of 1929, and the aftermath of those events. One of its central characters, Larry Darrell, is a young man who at the beginning of the book has just returned from the war and is clearly scarred by his experiences. His childhood sweetheart wants to marry and his and her family and friends want him to either go to college or go into business, but he refuses, deciding instead to "loaf," which translates into traveling around the world, working odd jobs, meeting some sages and scholars, and reading lots of books--clearly Larry made the right decision here. But before he takes off to Paris, his girlfriend tries to convince him to stay by saying to him,

"Henry Maturin was saying only the other day that we were beginning an era that would make the achievements of the past look like two bits. He said he could see no limit to our progress and he's convinced that by 1930 we shall be the richest and greatest country in the world . . . There's never been such a chance for a young man. I should have thought you'd be proud to take part in the work that lies before us. It's such a wonderful adventure."

Larry replies with a laugh, which is exactly how I felt when I read that. I like the idea of young 1920s men looking at their future in business as "a wonderful adventure."

Katie and I are definitely seeing traces of that optimism and excitement in the correspondence and publications we've come across so far. What I am especially keen on finding though is documentation of the 1929 market crash. So far, the only indication of it is a skip in the meeting minutes of the Executive Committee of the Merchants Association of New York from September 1929 to January 1930. I'm not sure what I'm hoping to find--tear stained business letters, emergency meeting memos, frantic telegrams--who knows. We haven't really gotten to 1929 correspondence or records yet anyway, but I hope we find it soon. Meanwhile, Katie is diligently working away at processing the Chairman's and Secretary's correspondence from the early part of that decade. Apparently, neither of these men placed much importance on keeping an organized and tidy filing system--I guess neither of them anticipated that their records were going to be processed and archived 90 years later. Who ever does, though? So, we forgive you Charles Bernheimer and Charles Gwynne. I'm sure that at the time, keeping six copies of every day correspondence seemed like a good idea.


Friday, June 13, 2008


When people ask me what my job is, I tell them that I am an archivist. When people ask what an archivist is, my answer is either short and somewhat vague (I arrange and describe archival collections) or in depth and detailed (I physically and intellectually arrange archival collections in folders and boxes, and then create descriptive tools such as MARC records and finding aids to help researchers understand what forms of materials are in the collection, how to find specific things in the collection, the intellectual content of the collection, and how that content may be useful to their research). Then there are the follow up questions: What is an archival collection? What's a MARC record? What do you mean by "intellectual arrangement?

Actually, most people don't go that far in their questioning. Most people respond to my explanation with, Oh, you work in a library. But sometimes I explain all of that anyway. I've always thought though, that if people actually saw what I do every day, how archivists take dusty boxes of "miscellaneous" and turn them into acid free boxes of Series 1, Subseries 2, Folders 1-20, and understood all of the research and documentation that goes into writing the description, then people would be way more interested, not just in my job but also in the idea of archives in general. So here are two photos of typical boxes from the New York Chamber of Commerce collection, pre-arrangement.

What is in these boxes? How old are these papers? Why did the Chamber keep them? Where did they come from? Why would a researcher want to see them? At this point, I only have a few, vague answers to these questions. This particular archival collection has a long and storied history, one that it accumulated over the years since its original creation. The collection has been transferred from desk to drawer to cabinet to box, from office to storage closet to basement to warehouse. Along the way it has been exposed to humidity and varying temperatures, not to mention that it has been stewing in its own acidity since birth.

So what do we do when we get a box like this? Well, this is the part of the job that we call processing. It has a certain factory worker ring to it, but I think its usually the part that archivists like most about their job. This is the part where we get to go through boxes and exclaim over weird finds like carved wooden figurines or miniature handwritten journals or the occasional illicit image. We don't have time to read everything--nor would we want to in most cases--but we do get to see the finest details of every collection we process. Some are more exciting than others, but you always hope that you are going to find something unique and noteworthy.


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.)