Although most businesses did not save their own records, researchers may be able to locate government records documenting their existence. Governments have been regulating and collecting information about businesses since colonial times. For example, U.S. census records began including information about occupations and businesses by the mid-19th century. In addition, many businesses were required to file regulatory documents with the local, state and/or federal government, such as business licenses and tax records. Property records such as leases and mortgages are also public records that must be filed with the local government, whether the property is used for business or residential purposes.
The U.S. federal census has been taken every ten years since 1790. Most researchers are familiar with census Population Schedules: a list of the names of all individuals living in the U.S., along with other details about them. In addition, for some years there are also so-called Non-Population Schedules, which gather additional information, including data about individual businesses and farmers. Both types of census records can be useful for business research.
Beginning in 1850, the census enumerators recorded the occupation of every individual living in the U.S. While the census lists only the type of work, and does not include the business name or, in most cases, whether the individual is the owner or an employee, it can be a good starting point for researchers who are researching a particular individual's business. To get the most information from these entries, researchers should also consult the Census Instructions (available online at the U.S. Census website), which provide detailed directions about how and when enumerators should record occupational information.
There are two Non-Population Schedules that are relevant for business research:
These often overlooked resources can provide a wealth of information about individual businesses and farms. Manufacturing schedule include the business name, kind of establishment, goods produced, raw materials, persons employed, machinery, capital, wages, expenses, and more. Agricultural schedules list the farmer's name, acreage, machinery, livestock, produce, etc. More information, including research tips, is available on the website of the National Archives.
1880 Census, Manufacturing Schedule, Ancestry Library Edition (accessed August 28, 2018)
Locating Census Records
Census records are available online from multiple sources, including:
Governments have been regulating American businesses since colonial times, generating records such as business filings, licenses, and tax records.
Licenses and filings
Before starting operation, most businesses must file legal documents in order to be authorized to conduct business in a particular area. The most familiar example is a business formed as a corporation, which is generally required to file with the State department in charge of corporations.
Both corporations and non-incorporated businesses are often required to obtain a license to operate from the state and/or local government. Requirements for business licenses have expanded over time. Early on, licensing requirements focused on trades affecting health and welfare (such as ferries and taverns), and on other types of businesses the government wanted to control (such as printing). Eventually licensing requirements grew to encompass virtually any type of business. These records often contain a lot of information about the people forming the business.
Business filings and licenses are usually held by the issuing agency, or, for older records, the State or County archives.
Outside of New York, business licenses may be maintained by the local clerk’s office or some other government office.
Taxes are collected from businesses as well as individuals. The two primary types of tax records are:
Common information recorded in these records include the name of the paying entity, location and size of property, assessed value of the property, and amount of taxes paid.
Taxes were levied by federal, state, and local governments. Older tax records (those that survived) are often held by by local libraries and historical societies.
More recent records are more likely held by appropriate government office: the National Archives (federal taxes), the archives of the state in question (state taxes), or by the town or county clerk (local taxes).
Additional information on finding and using tax records can be found in The genealogist's guide to researching tax records / Carol Cooke Darrow, and Susan Winchester, available on-site in the Milstein Division.
Once the location of a business has been identified, it may be possible to trace the history of the property through land records such as mortgages, leases and deeds. Property records for New York have been digitized and are freely available online at FamilySearch.org as New York Land Records, 1630-1970. Note that this collection is not searchable, so in order to access the relevant documents online you need to know:
For information about how to get started on this type of research, consult the Milstein Division's guide Who Lived In a House Like This? A Brief Guide to Building Research in NYC.