History Blog

The Value of a Corporate History

Recently I read a journal article examining the arguments for and against devoting resources to preserving and completing company histories. The debate reflects differences of opinion over the usefulness and value company histories have to the business world. Given the role businesses play in society, especially small businesses, historians and archivists maintain the necessity to preserve, recognize, and tell the story of a rich heritage that can be found in many communities. For these professionals, there is no debate over the value company histories provide.

Brets cropped

Remnants of Brett’s Department Store in Mankato, originally opened in 1868 by George E Brett.

A typical strategy used in the business world is to identify the return on investment before committing resources to a project. Unfortunately for historians and archivists, the monetary value gained by historical research, analyses, and preservation can be difficult to quantify. Fortunately for historians and archivists, many in the business world recognize the value, comment on and identify the value regularly, and do commit resources to preserving a company’s heritage.

While a company historical narrative can be viewed as a simple tool to explain the origins of a company or to establish a rudimentary timeline to demonstrate the longevity of a business, there are those who advocate a more significant and robust utilization of a company’s past. (For an excellent discussion and review of the debate see Paul C. Lasewicz, “Forget the Past? Or History Matters: Selected Academic Perspectives on the Strategic Value of Organizational Pasts” The American Archivist, Vol. 78, no. 1, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 59-83.)

A five-minute Internet search of Harvard Business Review articles reveals how valuable history can be to the business world. Not only is history important for understanding the past, these articles clearly state, they contribute to communicating and guiding a company’s future.

An article in 1996 discussed the need for corporations to focus on a vision and core values, catch phrases now present in most organizations. The author argues that core values grounded in the company’s past experience is what keeps an organization together (“Building Your Company’s Vision,” September/October 1996, by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras). An article in 2012 emphasizes the use of history to discover company values, and to use shared historical values to connect to business partners and potential customers (“Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool,” December 2012 by John T. Seaman Jr. and George David Smith). And in 2014, an article encouraged corporations to give executive status to company historians because of the value and depth they bring to communicating the corporate message in a meaningful way (“Why Marketing Needs to Hire a Corporate Folklorist,” July 15, 2014, by Patti Sanchez). In a world constantly attuned to any competitive advantage, history can be an effective tool.

Given the status and influence the business world maintains in the United States, company histories provide insight into American society. Companies drive political decisions, impact education, invest in the arts, affect the creation of parks and cultural facilities, and shape the general landscape of communities. They impact the lives of employees and their families. Companies and the people who create them, manage them, and work at them populate the community, define the community, and determine the community’s future. If company histories are not being written, a community’s historical record remains incomplete.

A good company history does more than make for an interesting tale soon forgotten. The history goes beyond significant dates and describes the lives of the people involved. It relays the triumphs and disappointments familiar in life. It imparts wisdom by illustrating how success occurs fitfully, because no company in existence for any period of time has experienced uninterrupted progress. It relates the values the company has held for generations, and the people who have framed and then lived those values. It educates the public on the impact companies have on society. It enriches the history of a community and connects the company to the community members who work there. In other words, company histories have exceptional value and should be documented and told.


Women’s History Month: The Cult of True Womanhood

The women’s rights movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries set the foundation for women’s rights advocacy throughout the last century. Women activists reflected the transformation in the United States as the country transitioned to an industrial society. The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote signified a culminating event during this period, but women’s rights activists took many different approaches to expanding the role of women in American society that continued well beyond the passage of the Constitutional amendment.

By the late nineteenth century, Victorian ideals governed the role of women in middle and upper class society. The cult of true womanhood, as it was called, set parameters to women’s behavior. Society expected women to be pious, as their nature appeared more religious and spiritual than men. Women needed to be pure of heart, mind, and body—not engaging in sexual relations until marriage, not enjoying it even when married (no birth control either, since this indicated engaging in sexual activity for pleasure), not being concerned with politics or economics, or other worldly topics. Women had to be submissive, allowing men to make decisions for them. And finally, domesticity governed a woman’s life, in which the home became the female domain and her refuge from the temptations, pressures, and unsavory conditions of life.

Some women reformers during this period actually used elements of the cult of true womanhood to justify their public activism. Jane Addams and the settlement house movement and Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union emphasized the need for moral reform and improving the lives of families in the United States. Florence Kelley and the National Consumers’ League focused on laws improving the working conditions of women and children. Even voting rights for women could be argued as necessary to correct men’s immoral behavior. All of this came under the purview of legitimate women’s roles as they focused on children and the family.

As more and more women entered the activists’ ranks, many of them began to push the boundaries of public discourse on women’s issues. As challenges to the cult of true womanhood grew, the foundation of modern American feminism developed.