Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

How to Research a Family Business: Business Records

Describes resources for researching the history of a business. Guide by Susan Kriete.

Overview

Although more the exception than the rule, the records of some small businesses have survived. Such records are generally held by a local library, archive or historical society. If your ancestor was affiliated with a larger company, records of the company are more likely to exist. 
Even if you are not able to locate the records of a specific business, it may also be worth looking for records of a similar business operating in the same time period, which may shed light on your ancestor's work experiences and help you understand the types of business activities that were common at the time.

 

NYPL Digital Collections Image ID 56965434

Company records

Locating business records can be challenging. If the business is still operating, the company may retain its own archives, which may or may not be available to researchers. 

Records of defunct businesses are scattered in various repositories, so it can be hard to know where to look. The best place to start is with a library or historical society in the area where the business operated.

Most libraries with archival collections and historical societies hold at least some business records. Here is a sampling from NYPL’s Manuscript and Archives Division:

To locate additional collections of business records at NYPL, try searching our Archives and Manuscripts portal

To locate collections of business records held by other institutions, try searching the following:

Business ephemera

In the library world, the word "ephemera" (defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "one who or something which has a transitory existence") is used to describe "throw-away" documents produced for short-term use, such as programs, menus, greeting cards, and advertisements. Libraries and museums have become increasingly interested in preserving these types of documents and making them available for historical research.

NYPL Digital Collections Image ID 4037316

Trade card

Advertising ephemera includes trade cards, flyers, calendars, brochures, and any other item printed as a business giveaway. “Trade cards,” distributed by business owners to advertise their goods, were in use as early as the 18th century, but became especially popular in the late 19th century. Between 1870 and 1900, these colorful cards were widely used by businesses, and collecting them became a national pastime. As a result, Although used by all types of businesses, the products most often advertised on trade cards include medicine, food, tobacco, clothing, household products, farm machinery, and sewing supplies.

If you are interested in a business that was operating during this time period, it may be worth checking to see if you can find a trade card or other loose advertisement relating to it. Even if you don’t find a trade card for your own family’s business (and chances are, you won’t! this falls into the category of research long-shots), these early advertisements are fun to look at and reveal a lot about American culture in the late 19th century.
NYPL holds a small number of trade cards, and a more extensive collection of trade catalogs. To locate these, try searching our online catalog:

Large collections of trade cards and other advertising ephemera are available at a few other institutions, including the following: