Chasing branded antiques and collectibles in attics, antique malls and on eBay is opening up a whole new collecting niche for corporate archivists charged with rescuing a company’s nostalgic past from the dust bin of history.
Take the case of venerable Procter & Gamble Co. Its archives are like a small museum, occupying the second floor of the company’s headquarters in Cincinnati. The main room has shelves, dedicated to the company’s brands, displaying bottles of Vicks medicine from the early 1900s and Pampers advertisements that date back to the 1960s.
“We have some very old pieces, like the company founding document from 1837, but one of our oldest artifacts that we acquired from outside the company was a candle crate from 1865 that a dentist in Nevada found while exploring an old mine,’’ said Shane Meeker, company historian at The Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati.
Meeker says that they have many different sources for artifacts in the P&G Heritage Center. “Many things the company has had since it was created in 1837, but we have also had many things donated by employees and their families. We occasionally find items online through sources like eBay. We sometimes get calls from people outside the company who may have found an item, and in those rare cases when we don’t have the item, we may purchase it from them. Basically, an archivist has to always be on the look out for new items, and there are a wide variety of places where they come from,’’ said Meeker.
Bob Simon of Royal York Auction Gallery in Pittsburgh reports increased interest in finding historical artifacts and collectibles by venerable old companies throughout the country.
“They are all going back to their roots and in doing so, we see requests across the board for company artifacts,’’ said Simon. In fact, Royal York recently sold an old elevator wheel from Pittsburgh-based Marshall Elevator Co. to family members of the 193-year-old company that is now owned by Otis Elevator Co.
Simon said the family members plan to turn the old, ornate elevator wheel into a table.
“It’s not just archivists searching for company collectibles,’’ said Paul Wentworth, an industrial historian from Gettysburg, Pa. “Family members from long-defunct companies or family-run companies that have been sold are trying to recapture some of their heritage. So, the corporate archivists have some competition,’’ said Wentworth, who still retains some of his ancestor’s blacksmith shop equipment from the late 1800s.
The U.S. is home to some 12,000 archivists, according to the Society of American Archivists. In 2004, when the society last counted, corporate archivists made up 5.4 percent of its membership. Many belong to some of the more than 50 archivists’ associations across the country, some of which build workshops and conferences to educate members about digital curation, proper presentation and copyright law.
Archivists are part sleuth and part historian, according to Phil Mooney, archivist for the Coca-Cola Co.
“We collect a myriad of artifacts, from toys to bottles and vending machines,’’ said Mooney. “We have such a rich history, and the collectors’ clubs are also a great source of finding artifacts.’’
The Coca-Cola brand is one of the world’s most recognizable. It all began in Atlanta, when John Penberton concocted a syrup in his backyard for a soda-fountain drink he planned to sell for a nickel a glass. The “pause that refreshes’’ is now sold globally to millions.
Even more collect old bottles, holiday artifacts and Coca-Cola trays. Susie Goft of Arlington, Va., has a whole set of Coca-Cola trays and vows to keep them for her grandchildren.
Some archivists have to get out into the trenches to find what they need. In some cases, it’s a matter of understanding how to use technology.
“One of the many challenges today is how best to use digital tools,’’ said P&G historian Meeker. “Going digital makes storing lots of things much easier space-wise, and with the resolutions and scanners and cameras these days, you can keep fantastic, clear records. But on the other hand, there are just many things you need physical space to store them,’’ said Meeker.
At PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh, banking history is taken seriously, too. The PNC Legacy Project is a comprehensive program to honor, document and preserve the history of predecessor banks. The bank’s Legacy Project website is a virtual world of antique ledgers, currency and mechanical devices.
“Banks have evolved with the changing times. What has not changed, though, is the intrinsic relationship banks have with local communities and the enduring trust that people place in their banks. We are committed to preserve this rich tradition through the PNC Legacy Project,’’ said Donna C. Peterman, PNC’s chief communications officer.
One of the more notable PNC artifacts is a deposit for two tickets aboard the ill-fated “Titantic” in 1911 by candy king Milton Hershey and his wife. But pressing business matters forced Hershey to leave Europe three days before the “Titantic” set sail, avoiding the worst maritime tragedy in history.
Other corporate archive tacks are just as ambitious. At L.L. Bean, archivists have snared everything from decades-old hunting vests to bamboo fishing rods. Some archivists even sign up for email alerts that flag auction items tagged “vintage” or “old.’’
Most of this archivist work and trekking through old antique shops and online auction sites is the result of carelessness and ambivalence, items thought to be of little value.
But Simon of Royal York Auction Gallery points out that such corporate collectibles are prized for many reasons. Some can help a company define its legacy, flesh out its history, create new products or simply serve as décor.
Archivists and antique collectors alike remind us, that chasing antiquity and history is an uneven process in which benefits accrue slowly. For example, Thomas Alva Edision flicked the switch to electrify Pearl Street on lower Manhattan in 1882, and it was nearly 30 years before electric appliances were widely marketed to homemakers.
“It’s all about waiting and knowing when to start collecting,’’ said Perry Brown, an avid collector of advertising posters for defunct airlines. “I just sold an old TWA poster for $2,500.
“Time is the great impetus for high value. Everyone has some kind of neat old collectible stuffed away in a kitchen drawer or old attic. Join the archivists and start looking.’’
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