The Cincinnati Enquirer
The records lining the shelves of the Cincinnati Historical Society's business archives program might be faded and out of date, but their keeper says many contain valuable tools for corporate planners.
Speaking in his basement quarters at the Museum Center in Union Terminal, surrounded by records of deals signed and sealed years ago, business archivist Steven L. Wright argues that too few businesses realize the importance of old records.
"A lot of businessmen think historians are muckrakers, but we're not like that at all," says Wright, a former Army helicopter pilot who holds a master's degree in history.
"Our goal is to educate businessmen on the need to keep records that will help them in decision-making."Records can answer questions about reasons for launching certain products or locating in a certain place - and accurate records on employee health can even help save money on insurance costs, he says.
"Ninety percent of what a business produces is trash, but the rest is of an archival nature that helps preserve the institutional memory and serve corporate planning," Wright explains.
The archivist cites Cincinnati's The Verdin Co. as an example of a business using records in daily activities.
A 150-year-old manufacturer of clocks and bells for clients around the world, Verdin had Wright organize its historical records, keeping those of importance and discarding those of no value. Verdin now uses the records so often to look up old orders and projects that they are stored at company headquarters instead of at the museum.
The Cincinnati Historical Society has always collected business records. Wright was hired two years ago to start the business archives when the group moved to more spacious quarters in Union Terminal.
The idea of a business archive came about when Museum Director Gale E. Peterson put together two recommendations for the project.
In one, manuscripts director Jonathan Dembo called for a business archives program because he had found a scarcity of business records in his research for a doctorate in labor history. In the other, museum board member George Makrauer, president and chief executive officer of Amko Plastics Inc., suggested a more systematic collection of business records.
Since May, Wright's office has been working on 65 cubic feet of records from the Cincinnati Stock Exchange. Volunteers are going through the records page by page, removing paper clips and putting materials into chronological order.
After volunteers finish their work, Wright will decide which records are worth keeping. In this case, the collection includes board minutes, securities rule books, photographs, a daily readout on all the stocks of the 1880s and daily stock quotes.
In the summer of 1993, he says, these records will become part of the archives under the name of The D. Rosemary Goodrich Archives of the Cincinnati Stock Exchange. Goodrich, who retired from the exchange last year, was instrumental in saving the records from extinction.
On a tour of the rows of records encased in decay-preventing acid-free boxes and folders, Wright points out some well-known names: Stearns & Foster, the Gilligan Funeral Home, Mosler Safe, Star Bank, the William S. Merrell Co. (a Cincinnati-based predecessor of the modern-day Marion Merrell Dow Inc.), the former garbage can manufacturer F. H. Lawson Co., the old LeBlond Machine Tool Co. and the Cincinnati Athletic Club.
Wright has been working on a history of the old Fleischmann Yeast Co., scheduled in 1993 to celebrate the 125th year of its founding in Cincinnati. Today, the product is owned by Specialty Brands, San Francisco.
When Wright ran into conflicting dates - 1871 and 1872 - for a fire that destroyed the Fleischmann plant, he obtained the correct date from the more than 100 years of records contributed to the archives by the Cincinnati Fire Department. The fire occurred in January of 1871.
"The fire department kept excellent records," Wright says, adding, "They even smell like smoke."