Heroes, Historical Consulting, and Marquis James

The roots of historical consulting lie in the early to mid-20th century when corporations began to see their stories as an asset even as professional historians grew more specialized and less interested in institutions. Two biographers led the field. Alan Nevins attempted to craft compelling and contemporary history that met academic standards. Marquis James, on the other hand, favored more historically remote subjects and a more sensational approach.

Marquis James grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the “Cherokee Strip,” the newly opened Oklahoma Indian lands where rapacity (toward both native Americans and less fortunate settlers) was part of daily life. In the 1910s James became a journalist, reaching the height of the profession in reporting on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” that pitted legends William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow.

Then James began the work that had an immediate impact on American popular history, writing biographies of Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, and John Nance Garner (Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president). In these works, James demonstrated both an enduring strength: the ability to tell a good story; and fatal weakness: the tendency to see the heroic individual as the locomotive of history.

In 1941, in telling the life story of Alfred I. DuPont, James turned from political biography to business history. Two insurance company histories and books on Texaco and The Bank of America followed. James did meticulous research, but he invariably interpreted his sources to the credit of larger-than-life characters above all else.

This preference for the heroic made James a celebrated author in his day (he won two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1930s) and a forgotten one in ours. For in building up his heroes, James stripped away historical complexities, including the possibility that the bald-faced exploitation which American culture countenanced, and in which many of its legends participated, was anything but heroic.

It seems that at least one of Marquis James’s clients figured this out. In the late 1940s, J. Peter Grace, CEO of the chemical company that his grandfather had built by stripping Latin American countries of guano, commissioned a business biography of the founder.  But when James completed the manuscript, Grace buried it, apparently realizing that documenting in admiring prose the exploitative underpinnings of the W. R. Grace & Company would undermine already fragile relations in Latin America. Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W. R. Grace did not see the light of day until 1993, a year after J. Peter Grace stepped down as CEO.

Today, historical consulting involves much more than the writing of books as it did in the days of Marquis James. And it also must involve much more than reflexively repackaging the one-dimensional legends and self-promotional stories that may have passed as history in an earlier day.

Late Nineteenth: Today’s News Ripped from Yesterday’s Headlines

In 2003, after Behind the Backlash was published, I needed a break from cutting-edge historiography. But I still yearned to read history. So when I encountered a copy of In the Days of McKinley, I bought it. Margaret Leech’s classic (it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960) was the book that had first started me thinking about graduate school more than fifteen years earlier. I rediscovered what had fascinated me in history before I had been trained: the importance of individuals, the strivings of groups, the exhilaration people experience as they are making history, the disappointment they feel after realizing that “history” has had its way with them, and the power of a story well told. I plunged into a personal curriculum of classic popular history.

When I first checked In the Days of McKinley out of the library, I had been a rock musician. Now, rather than performing for audiences I was working with computers, which made songwriting and multi-track recording much easier.

In 2004, the curriculum and the computers gave rise to Late Nineteenth, a historical concept album (I thought of it more as a play) that began with Alfred Thayer Mahan before a chalkboard at the Naval War College and ended with a handful of Ohioans gathered around a country store stove telling stories about the recently assassinated president.

Today the themes that seemed so refreshingly past in 2004 have become depressingly present. So if you are interested in today’s news ripped from yesterday’s headlines—things like political scandal, populist politics, tariffs and protection, an extraordinary split in one of the two major parties, and an attempted march on the Capitol—give Late Nineteenth a listen on the streaming service of your choice.

Get in Line, Its 1973 All Over Again

This afternoon I went out for a few groceries. Five minutes from home I encountered a sight that resurrected long buried memories from my youth. On one block there were a dozen cars clogging traffic lanes to line up at the local Sunoco station. Around another corner were at least a score of vehicles jockeying for position like gum balls in a chute, determined to land by the pumps at the local 7-Eleven Store. I had seen this before.

As America entered the 1970s the outlook for the domestic oil industry was bleak. The United States had once dominated the industry, but since 1955 the number of drilling rigs had been dropping steadily. Experts in the subject (who almost no one listened to) were already warning of an “energy crisis” by 1971.

Then, on October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched the fourth and most destructive of their serial wars against Israel. The sentiment in the United States was predictable; America would have to back up its long-time ally.  There was a problem though. Recently the United States had become addicted to foreign oil—imports had doubled from 1970 to 1973 alone. Much of that oil came from Middle Eastern countries allied with Egypt and Syria; most of it came from nations who were members of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). And OPEC was dominated by Saudi Arabia’s Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani.

The United States helped Israel as expected. OPEC retaliated with rolling cutbacks. The big oil companies anticipated trouble, but no one expected what happened on October 20, 1973, when Sheik Yamani cut off the United States entirely. The administration had not been sitting on its hands. In attempts to smooth out problems it created an allocation system. It was unfortunately rigid, keeping too much gas in some locations while leaving others high and dry. Prices rose nearly 50 percent, a strong market signal, but consumers ignored it. They went out to top off their tanks anyway, resulting in traffic jams, long lines, and “sorry no gasoline” signs.

The 1970s oil crisis marked a turning point. Up to that time, we Americans had generally believed that our abundant resources and our exceptional political system would ensure “the good life” for generations to come. Overnight that first tenet was shaken: the administration appointed an “Energy Czar” (which most Americans thought entirely appropriate) and average citizens began to wonder if it was realistic to believe in an endless supply of fossil fuel. In a sense, the fear and panic instilled in the gas lines provided a visceral sense of urgency lacking in the abstractions that swirled around Earth Day three years earlier.

In one of those truth is “stranger than fiction” moments, it was also on October 20, 1973 that Richard Nixon fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox for being too persistent in investigating Watergate. So on the same day that belief in unlimited abundance began to waver, our collective confidence in American governance began to crumble too.

The legacy of both events of October 20, 1973 remains with us, but only in traces. Handwringing about “limits” and Watergate culminated in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but by the time of his dismal “malaise” speech (issued during a second oil shock in 1979), the majority of Americans were tired of pondering limits and responsible governance. In the 1980 election cycle Ronald Reagan smiled, assured everyone that things would be fine without any effort on their part, and won the presidency handily. Still, for over half a decade, mainstream Americans had been willing to think about more than comfort and convenience and were hesitant to place full faith in the benevolence of unbridled capitalism.

Once again motorists are lining up to top off the tank and gas station employees are getting their signs ready. But this crisis is regional, caused by problems involving a particular pipeline. And we have become accustomed to spectacular glitches created by our computerized economy: for drivers beyond the Southeast, the current gas station inconveniences are just a new version of the recent Game Stop imbroglio. It is too bad that the architect of the 1973 oil crisis missed this minor recapitulation of his greatest accomplishment. Sheik Yamani’s death two months ago was little noticed among all the Game Stop headlines. Remember him while you’re waiting in a gas line today, and for just a moment it will be 1973 all over again.

“The New” and the Old at and America’s Newest National Park

Last December, a 5,593-page omnibus bill made it through Congress at the last minute. Buried in the bill intended to provide COVID-19 relief and keep the government operating was a section promoting the New River Gorge National River to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. Some legislation spends years in the hopper—this measure, it could be said, was eons in the making.

It begins with the river that locals and adventurers call “The New.” Most West Virginia rivers are as the song goes, “younger than the mountains,” but the New River is older. As the Appalachian Plateau rose up over millions of years between what is now North Carolina and West Virginia, the river stayed put, cutting through the sandstone from south to north as it rose. The most spectacular result is the steep-walled gorge, 1,600 feet at its deepest, that runs just east of Fayetteville.

That geological history has created one of the signature activities of the region—whitewater boating. Between the long-lost towns of Cunard and Fayette Station, 22 rapids—half of them formed by erosion of the steep canyon walls—present an exhilarating challenge to rafters and kayakers. Although more adventurous boaters tend to favor the nearby Gauley River, everybody ends up at The New eventually, since it is one of the few West Virginia rivers runnable year-round. While boaters pass below, rock climbers scale the ancient yellow Pennsylvanian sandstone that forms sheer cliffs near the top of the canyon.

Those not captivated by geology or high adventure can peruse Appalachia’s economic past, deeply etched in the New River Gorge. It started with logging, and traces of old lumber camps remain in places like Glade Creek, an open area at the southern gates of the canyon.  Coal mining followed, and visitors to the gorge today can hike to the early small-scale Kaymoor Mine. Although the largest of the New River coal fields are outside the gorge, it was along the banks of The New that the Chesapeake & Ohio built the railroad that served as a “conveyor for coal” between the rich West Virginia veins and the Atlantic coast. Coal trains still head up the gorge many times a day, past a restored railroad depot in the ghost town of Thurmond.

Construction of the C&O was once the stuff of “John Henry” legend, but the rails through the canyon are no longer the chief engineering marvel around The New.  That place goes to the New River Gorge Bridge. Before 1977 it took about 45 minutes to get from the east rim of the canyon, down to the bridge at Fayette Station (where the C&O once stopped) and back up to Fayetteville. The structure cut the crossing to about a minute and made history as the longest arch bridge in the world. The record lasted only 26 years, but the breathtaking bridge remains the chief attraction in the New River Gorge.

The section tucked into last December’s omnibus bill was partly about economics—the words “national park” ensure that hordes of new visitors will spend much-needed dollars in south central West Virginia. It was partly about conservation and environmentalism. Since the creation of Yellowstone in 1872, the national park ideal has been to preserve natural wonders and inspire Americans. But it was also very much about legacy. The sponsor of the title, Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito, has strong historical ties to the state and to The New River Gorge National Park. It was Capito’s father Arch Moore, as governor of West Virginia, who presided over the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge in the 1970s.

A Bank Failure and a Political Transformation

One hundred and forty-seven years ago the banking empire of Jay Cooke, a financier who had bankrolled the North during the Civil War, failed. The event rippled through the financial markets, setting off the Panic of 1873, widely recognized as the precipitating event of a long period of economic contraction during the late 19th century. In fact, these years from 1873 to 1896 were, until the 1930s, labeled The Great Depression, and like the latter version, this one caused a tectonic shift in American politics.

The reason is that in some respects, the “great contraction” of the late 19th century was engineered, as the federal government, bowing to economic orthodoxy and banking and business interests, sought to return the nation to the gold standard after Civil War experiments with paper and silver currency.

The policy benefitted middle-class and industrial creditors but devastated rural and working-class debtors. By the turn of the century, an influx of gold from overseas stemmed the long deflation, but not without adding a pronounced economic populist streak to the anti-strong federal government and white supremacy base of the Democratic Party—traits that would, after another century’s tumult, come to be taken up by the modern-day Republican Party.

Historical Consulting and Partnership

The prospect of putting your organization’s story down on paper can be daunting. The most perplexing questions have to do with content: what if we do not get the story right? What if people feel left out? What if we learn things that do not conform to our current aspirations? A second tier of concerns are less existential but are in some ways more worrying: how will we provide all the research? Where will we get the time to review? How will we handle design and printing? I have already got a job to do, how can I take on a project as big as this? As an expert at historical consulting, I can answer these questions and lift most of the burdens of the project from your shoulders, yet help you maintain the control over the project that you need to have.

The Proposal

Partnering should begin during the proposal stage. Opening discussions are wide-ranging. Potential clients usually share what they know about their story and what they hope to gain from the historical consulting relationship. I often take the opportunity to assess the availability of documentary sources and discuss a preliminary list of oral history interviewees.

The next step is to narrow things down and scope out the project.  The best place to start is the product—is it a simple as a historical timeline for the website or a more complex on-line history? If it is a print product that you are looking for, is it a brief illustrated pamphlet, a full-scale coffee table book, or something in between? A historical consultant can help you decide by comparing costs and timetables. The type of product helps determine how many interviews are appropriate and how much time and effort will be required for documentary and photo research.

At the close of these discussions I usually draft a proposal that describes the product we are going to end up with and lays out concrete steps for getting there. Although I usually get it right the first time, the proposal itself can be revised after the potential client’s review.

As the project gets underway, clients often begin assembling a history advisory committee. This can be an important component of the partnership since those administering the history project day to day are not always able to make firm decisions regarding content. A history advisory committee can represent stakeholders throughout the organization who are willing to provide feedback on the book’s approach and content. In my experience the most effective history advisory committees are relatively small, with three to five people. Most importantly, the members must be empowered to make decisions.

Research and Interviewing

 The prospect of research is usually daunting for clients. Typical questions are “what if we don’t have enough material?” or “what if we don’t have time to organize our records?”  The good news is that doing research is the job of your historical consultant and need not consume a great deal of your time. Most organizations do not have formal archives, and that is alright with me. My chief requirements are simple: access to your historical records, a table to work on, and an outlet to plug in a computer and scanner. Sometimes documentary sources like old newsletters, reports, and minutes are well organized if not archived, other times they are thrown haphazardly in boxes, closets, or banks of filing cabinets. It should not matter to an experienced historical consultant. I review them systematically, scanning or photographing what I deem to be important and putting everything back the way I found it.

I will need to partner more closely when it comes to arranging the interviews. After we have come up with an interview list, I rely on the client to make the initial contact—to let interviewees know that it is a project sanctioned by the organization and that their cooperation with its historical consultant is appreciated. I follow up to schedule the interviews. While sessions can be by phone or at a retired interviewee’s home, for those currently employed, an office or a conference room is suitable. If clients expect to leverage these interviews in the future, I usually leave it to them to follow up and have the interviewee sign a release form, which I can provide.

While the oral history stage with its administrative tasks can be one of the most demanding for a client, it is also a great opportunity for an organization to ensure constructive input on content. Just by meeting a number of people from your organization, a historical consultant can get a strong sense of corporate culture and values. That goes a long way to ensure that the project meets your expectations.

Developing the Story

Depending on your availability during the research stage, we may have spoken at length about the developing story, but the outline stage is where that communication is formalized.

With documentary research and interviewing largely complete, your historical consultant should produce an outline that, in just a few pages, shows how the book will be structured, lays out the central themes of each chapter, identifies the key events and initiatives that will be covered in each of them, and describes how chapters are structured so as to build upon one another in pursuit of an overall theme for the book.

After a client reviews my outline, we usually take the opportunity to discuss the emerging themes and consider how they fit with your current organizational priorities well in advance of writing. We adjust the outline and I submit revisions as necessary until the client is satisfied that we are embarking on writing their book.

The next step is one that most clients have been anticipating all along: review of drafts. If the book project is a sizeable one, your historical consultant will generally submit one or two preliminary chapters for early review so that both parties can discuss the style, tone, and overall approach to the writing before moving on to next chapters. For smaller books, however, it is far more efficient just to draft the entire text and submit it for review in entirety.

This is the point where the history advisory committee usually comes into full play. While it is invaluable to have multiple perspectives on revisions, the review process also exposes some of the challenges of the committee system—namely that those members who actively participate (and some will not) often have differing views about big things such as whether or how a certain subject should be covered, and small things like appropriate subtitles—even punctuation.

I would like to be able to coordinate and incorporate all of the input myself. Unfortunately, this is usually not possible, since very often suggested edits are mutually conflicting. Therefore I usually relay on my main point of contact to pull together all edits. If I work from one master document, I can be sure that I am making the right changes, doing additional research and reconceptualizing in a way that fits organizational, rather than individual expectations.

One last note about this step of the partnership. My direct clients usually take the manuscript review process seriously and work hard at it. Very often, however, senior management fails to invest much time at this point reviewing what is, to them, just a preliminary version of the book. If anything holds a project up, it is usually failure to fully review in manuscript and the resulting need to review in layout, late in the process.

Last Chapter Issues

The last chapter of a commissioned history can be sensitive, controversial, and difficult. But there is no way of avoiding the challenge. Well, there is. I once had a client that, after grappling with the prospect of putting its recent history down on paper, opted to cut the narrative short by twenty years in the name of “objectivity.” But for most institutional clients it is precisely the opportunity to root the present in the past that makes a corporate history book desirable.

So that leaves us with the last chapter challenge. Sometimes there are real problems to be sorted out—how much to document dead-ends like completely failed initiatives? Which people to feature and which to sketch in briefer profile? In the end, grappling with these questions and making a decision is precisely what the client has hired the historical consultant to do in the first place. Having studied the entire history of an organization closely and faced with bringing the story to an authentic close, I have never had any trouble doing it. The people who have lived the history however, members of the advisory committee or senior management, often have a tougher time.

The reason is entirely understandable. Everyone’s lived experience is unique. The historical consultant draws all of those experiences together, corroborates them with the written record, and creates an overarching narrative. This best effort to draw all of those views of the past together into a synthesis inevitably fails to square with any one individual’s version of what really happened and why.

In rare cases, senior management will pull rank and decides that his or her version of certain events should be written into the narrative, which is not a problem if this is simply a matter of emphasis or interpretation. Far more often, however, people just need time to get used to the story. This is almost certainly the first time they have seen the efforts of a lifetime written down. Sometimes this period of adaptation takes a while—weeks or even months—but I am happy to work with clients while they make it and hope that it does not bust a deadline.

Partnering in Production

By the time we are both growing comfortable with your fresh new history, we are also looking towards production. This is the point where the partnership can change. Some clients opt to do design and printing themselves.  In that case, the historical consultant’s role may be to provide a kit containing all of the components of the book (if it is an illustrated history that includes text, photographs, sidebars, and front and back matter). Even if the client chooses to proceed on its own, I am always happy to conduct a last proof or two. If senior managers have not paid sufficient attention during the draft stage, I am also happy to work on comprehensive revisions in the layout stage as well.

In most cases, clients rely on me to coordinate design and printing. I generally provide them with samples from two or three book designers that I know well so that they can make a selection that fits.  I coordinate the process of design, from comps through layout, translating designers’ concerns into plain English for the client and vice versa.

The same goes with printing. From the proof stage through delivery I work with clients so they understand the importance of paper types, cloth samples, foil, and bands and make the choice that fits their requirements for quality, budget, or a compromise of both.

This process can often be an uncomfortable one, particularly if the project, as it often does, has stalled in the layout stage and is approaching a deadline with only days to spare. A good historical consultant should be used to it. But I still breathe a big sigh of relief when I hear that the truck from the bindery has been to the client’s facility and left the loading dock.

If you are considering undertaking a corporate history or anniversary book project, an expert in historical consulting can take the load off your shoulders yet ensure that you have the input required to make it your book.

Give me a call to talk about partnering on your history project.

Storytelling and Company History Books

What do most clients expect from a company history book? After 25 years and hundreds of discussions I think I have gotten an idea, even if the people I talked with had trouble putting it into words. A good place to start is to consider the evolving meaning of the word history.

When is a Story “History”?

In the original Latin, historia meant “inquiry.” So history is about asking questions, foundational questions as central to companies as they are to associations or educational institutions: how did we start out and why? How have we changed and why? What were things like for our predecessors and what should their experience mean to us today? History books have a reputation for getting bogged down in detail, but presented properly all of the particulars should help lift the narrative and drive it forward to answer these foundational questions.

By the middle ages historia had taken on a new meaning. The asking of questions was now assumed; the word now described how they were answered—in a story. Somewhere along the way people had figured out that all of these foundational questions involved change over time and that the best way to answer them was in a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So a company history book, as clients understand it today, should be a good read, a narrative that unfolds in a manner that approximates the passage of time. That narrative has to be more than a fine tale though, it has to mean something. The corporate story has to help answer those questions about what we were like in the past and how we got to where we are today.

The fact that history is a true story, however, gives rise to a common misconception that if you do all the research and then line up the facts in order, the story will come out the same every time. It does not work that way. Instead, every historian is going to interpret—ask certain questions and tell distinct stories in different ways depending on their experience and their goals. A historian who specializes in science, economics, or politics, for example, will likely ask questions related to those fields and end up using the institutional story as a canvas upon which to paint a picture that reflects his or her own personal agenda.

My career has depended on doing something more fundamental—making sure that the interpretation revolves around the organization. Sure there will be coverage of larger, more transcendent subjects, but in the end they all have to contribute to a faithful representation of the corporation at a given point in historical time.

Implicit in the concept of interpretation, however, is the insight that all history is artifice—a deliberately constructed account of an infinitely complex and unknowable past that simplifies, reorganizes, and with luck, entertains and influences. Still, you can call it history if you construct your artificial narrative as best you can out of verifiable facts. Philosopher R.C. Collingwood described the process well when he insisted “the historian must re-enact the past in his own mind.” I approach the writing of a company history book as the process of re-enacting the past on paper. It is not easy to do. It demands the ability to conceptualize a story and employ strategies appropriate for turning your facts into narrative. It requires an ability to be creative and write engaging prose as well as a willingness to rewrite and revise.

Conceptualizing Company History

Everything starts with a concept. No one can write a good company history book without planning. Those who plan carelessly will only waste time fixing things later—or worse, not fix them at all.

The conceptualization phase is not a time for rigidity, you have to be ready to change your mind. Most institutions have a “received narrative” that has been handed down for years. This might be a good starting point or a working hypothesis, but in my experience, putting too much trust in it makes it easy to misinterpret your sources. Most importantly, my clients usually want a fresh story and you cannot build one out of old boilerplate.

I do not write a word until I have become familiar enough with my sources to create a narrative structure that makes sense and feels comfortable. It is not a matter of waiting for inspiration. I sketch out any number of alternatives with different emphases and varying numbers of chapters, filling up notepads until the structure seems to work. As I move from sketching the story to building an outline, I create titles and subheadings that convey the dynamic at work or encapsulate the story being told in each section. This helps me to think hard and abstractly about what the story means and thus, better know what I have to say.

Story Strategies

When it comes to actually writing the company history book there are a number of strategies that I use to guarantee that the story builds momentum, effectively drives home the points that I want to make, and leaves readers feeling they have spent their time wisely.

First, I keep introductions brief and do not give away too much of the story up front. You have to offer enough to get the reader hooked but withhold enough to encourage him or her to read on. I also want to save complex or crucial explanations for the time when the reader can best appreciate them—which is never right up front.

History is powerful because it recreates lives lived sequentially. I try to take advantage of that in conceptualizing the overall story of course, but I also try to develop chapters, paragraphs, and even sentences as mini narratives with a beginning, middle, and an end. One good way to do this is to create a “causal chain” (this happened, which led to this, which resulted in that). Our minds construct their own narratives out of remembered events, key decisions, and positive or negative outcomes. A good story does that too.

Similarly, millennia of myth and folklore have conditioned our minds to expect and to enjoy basic dramatic conventions like protagonists, antagonists, hubris, the quest, conflict, and resolution. I believe that it is appropriate to make use of these conventions so long as they fit the facts and not the other way around.

Quotations are also a conventional component of any company history. Amateurs usually overuse them—sometimes just to fill space, often because it relieves them from the difficult job of having to fully control their material. Professionals use quotations sparingly yet effectively to leaven the text with contemporary voices and to convey personality, but they do not hide behind them.

Last comes the conclusion. I keep it brief and do not include new information. The function of a conclusion is to reinforce the main point of the story and to give the reader a chance to reflect and make sense of what he or she has already learned.

Tactical Writing

Then there are the tactics: things that you should be constantly doing in order to produce high quality writing of any kind, including a company history book.

History’s distance constantly tempts authors to lapse into the passive voice. I use active voice whenever possible. Active writing is powerful, clear, and brief. I know that readers appreciate all three.

Because their work hinges on documentation, some historians get lazy and use up ink describing their sources and what is in them. It is better to rise above the sources and write about what was actually going on. Whenever possible I try to write about people doing things: whether working, playing, trying, failing, thinking, or dreaming. Writing about people (subject) doing things (verb) keeps your writing active. Plus, just as they appreciate dramatic conventions, readers enjoy understanding, admiring, or loathing, people from the past.

What distinguishes a professional historian is not knowing what to put in but what to leave out. By the time I am done researching I have usually got enough information to fill three or four books. I am selective with detail, giving the life story of central characters, but letting the walk-ons be one dimensional. Readers of a company history book want to know most about the people and events central to the story. I make them stand out by keeping the rest in the shade.

I also make it a point never to puncture the fourth wall. In theater, the fourth wall is the imaginary line between actors and audience. In writing you step beyond it with ponderous asides like “as mentioned previously” and soliloquies on sources. Most of the time readers know that the author is back there behind the page—the magic of good writing is to make them forget it for a while.

Rewriting Until Its Right

One of the best things about being a writer is that you get to revise until you get things right. It is surprising to me, therefore, that even experienced historians are reluctant to dig back into their copy. I have never worked with an author who wrote most things, let alone everything, fluently and powerfully the first time. We all owe it to the reader to rework our material, sometimes over and over, until it is effective as history and powerful as prose.

One of the toughest things to do is to cut. You spent all that time writing those paragraphs or those pages after all—why throw them out? Perhaps because another look makes it clear that the information is unnecessary. Things that seem important when we begin often turn out not to be, and everything in your book should be important. I have learned to cut ruthlessly and am seldom sorry I did. I reassure myself that producing all those unused pages was necessary to get to the ones worth keeping.

Even the writing that survives may not be in tip top shape. Imprecision drains writing of its power and meaning. Accumulated imprecision makes a book boring and pointless. One of the chief benefits of revision is that it allows me to think hard about every word I use. Is this an “issue” or is it really a “problem?” Did they “discuss” or really “debate?”

Far less frequently I realize during revision that I have left something out. Where did one character come from? Where did another character go? The biggest problem is when a causal chain that I have constructed is incomplete. Sometimes finding the missing information means not only doing new research but also revising the story. It was only after a few years as a professional historian that I discovered how much learning you do during the writing process: things you thought were important at first turn out not to be and things you dismissed early on sometimes rise to become vital.

Finally, as I near the end of the rewriting stage something important happens. I own up to the fact that I am (usually) the world’s expert on the history of the company that I am writing about. That makes it easier to do something that for most of us is difficult at first—to write confidently. If I am quite sure that something happened, I say that it happened. If I am not sure (and it matters) I say so and why. Readers will not believe what a reluctant or hesitant writer writes.

This is a lot to go through in order to write a company history book, but I believe that I owe it to the institution, the client, and especially the reader, to do it. All of these are lessons I have learned over years of writing corporate history. If you are already an experienced writer and historian, you might use some of these points to help improve your own work. If you are a potential client, the best news is that you need not go through this yourself.

Give me a call to discuss whether my approach to writing a company history book is suited for telling your story.

Voices and Viewpoints Part II: Conducting an Oral History (and After)

The fact that it took an entire blog just to get to the point where we can talk about conducting the actual oral history interview shows how important preparation is. By the time the actual session starts, therefore, many of the toughest tasks are complete. Now the oral history consultant can enjoy talking to the interviewee—although there is still much to be done.

The Interview

There will always be pleasantries before the recording starts. Many interviewees express concern about how much they are likely to remember. I always take the opportunity to minimize expectations and assure them that this is “their interview” so they should feel free to talk about things that stand out most clearly in their memories. I assure them that those are likely to be the most important topics for discussion.

The first few minutes of every oral history interview session are important—you are getting to know the interviewee and he or she is getting to know you. Many interviewees are guarded at first. Some insist that they are future-oriented and do not live in the past. Some are worried that they will not know the answer to a question. Mostly they just wonder what exactly this person with the recorder wants.

That is why I usually begin the session with topics that are neither challenging nor threatening nor crucial to the interview. Starting from the beginning works perfectly—everyone has the elevator speech about when they grew up, where they went to school, and how they got started.

By the time I am heading into the most essential part of the interview I have usually established good rapport with the interviewee. But some important prerequisites have to be met. First, you must actively listen. Second, you must demonstrate familiarity with the interviewee’s life and work.  The third prerequisite is one that amateurs often fail to fulfill: let the interviewee be the interviewee. Some people are great storytellers, but others are not. Get the stories when you can, but when you cannot, figure out what else is there. Some interviewees are highly analytical. Some are great with detail. Some are good amateur historians, able to put their life experiences into broader context. In any case, do not try to force an analyst to tell stories and do not try to make a tale spinner into an academic. Figure out how to play to your interviewee’s strengths as you lead them through their past.

That last point is important. People live their lives, and generally remember them, in sequence. That fact is the oral historian’s most valuable tool. Do not jump from time to time and subject to subject. When you help the interviewee work systematically through his or her life, the process brings depth to potentially pat answers and jars loose memories that people had not recalled in years. If interviewees want to jump around a bit, let them, but they usually appreciate sticking to the narrative and will return to it if gently reminded.

There are some tricks of the trade that I employ consistently during an interview—none are difficult to perform, but all pay big dividends. First, be quiet. Most people are uncomfortable facing another person in silence. But very often interviewees will stop in the middle of a story or recollection to think over what they want to say next. Amateur interviewers almost always cut them off. I give the interviewee time to remember.

Second, if one of the goals of oral history is to get recollections in context, how do you do that?  I often employ the two-sentence format. The first sentence is a context-setting statement such as “This was a difficult period; the company was going through bankruptcy at the time.” Then comes the question: “So how were you able to keep the project going despite that?” In responding to this two-sentence format the interviewee will be encouraged to think about things in multiple dimensions and give a better response than he or she would in an answer to a simpler question.

It is easy for an oral historian to be preoccupied with what to ask next, but it always pays to pay close attention. Sometimes in a discussion the interviewee will let slip intriguing clues that there is something else back there, saying something in the middle of a story like “Bob, he was an unusual guy” and then continuing. If I have any suspicion that Bob might be important to my story, I come back soon for a simple clarification—”in what way was Bob unusual?” Even interviewers who do notice the aside may either forget to revisit the subject or opt not to get the clarification for fear of looking uninformed.

That gets to a last simple, but not always obvious, stratagem: ask obvious questions. Perhaps every magazine article you have read tells the same particular story in great detail and “everybody knows” a certain thing happened. If there is any chance the interviewee knows about it, ask anyway. There may have been something going on that was kept from the reporters or perhaps no one ever asked your source for the story before. By asking obvious questions you get two things: one, the certainty that you will have an original quote for your book, and two, the possibility that you’ll learn something new that you did not even know to ask about.

Keeping the Story Going (And on Track)

Most oral history interview sessions last 90 to 120 minutes. Busy people will have no more time to give you, and many retirees will visibly tire if they go on much longer. That means you have to have discipline. Many interviewees will go into the session expecting to talk about their lives in great detail, launching into childhood tales that stretch out and if that precedent is followed would put the approximate length of the interview somewhere around the 8 to 12-hour mark. The oral historian cannot let that happen. I am always ready to move things forward gently but firmly, even with an abrupt change of the subject if necessary. Less often an interviewee will want to jump straight into mid-career claiming that the rest “is not history.” I explain that it is and make sure to double back and get the required context.

Most of the interview, though, will be a matter of more careful calibration. The oral historian must be doing three things at once: talking notes (to show that he or she is interested and to jot down reminders), listening to the story being given, and figuring out approximately how much more time you can give to the current and future lines of inquiry.  Some interviewees you will need to slow down, encouraging them to develop things in greater detail. Most you will need to speed up, getting them to work through things at a pace that ensures that you will finish under the two-hour mark.

There are times when you will want an exhaustive, if not encyclopedic, interview. In that case schedule several sessions, but even so the rules for each individual session will be the same.

In any event, always leave time for that last question: “is there anything else that we should talk about?”  About a third of the time the answer is “that covers it.”  Another third of the time the interviewee notes that he or she could go on for hours. But the rest of the time, the interviewee will indeed bring up a subject or line of questioning that we missed. Sometimes it is important, sometimes not, but providing that option is the last way to deliver on the promise that it was indeed “their” interview.

After the Interview

The next step is getting a transcript made. Your oral history consultant should be able to take care of this for you. There is one important qualification, however. Do not expect a verbatim record like the kind a court stenographer provides. This is a distinction that often surprises clients: an oral history transcript is not meant to capture the exact words spoken during the interview. Instead it is intended to provide the best historical record possible. Therefore, two things become possible. First, the transcript can be cleaned up so that it reads well. “Uhs,” “Ohs,” and other verbal tics can be removed. You can even sort out the syntax to some extent in order to make the interview transcript easier to read.

A corollary to this is that both interviewer and interviewee should be allowed to make corrections and even to add a minimal amount of new material in order to clarify or improve the record provided in the interview. This does introduce complications, however, that can add greatly to the duration and expense of the project. Some interviewees will be fine with the transcript the way it is. Some will make a handful of corrections. A few may try to rewrite the transcript entirely, sometimes just to make themselves sound more eloquent (it is surprising to see a transcript of your own speech) and sometimes to add additional paragraphs and pages on new subjects. I do my best to discourage this and enlist the client’s help in persuading interviewees to keep edits minimal whenever possible.

Finally there is the matter of the release form. Officially speaking, both the interviewer and the interviewee “own” the contents of an oral history interview. Both parties can usually assume that the interview may be used to write a book currently under way. But if there is any chance that the client may want to use the material later, I provide them with a release form that I will sign and that they can have the interviewees sign.

When best to pull out the release form is a matter for debate. There are some clients who will not arrange for an interview unless the form is signed in advance. Others prefer getting the form signed immediately after the session. Early in my career, when sessions were almost always audio and the final product was a transcript, interviewees often wished to be allowed to make and approve edits before signing. This being a reasonable request, it became my standard procedure for many years. In some cases this was particularly appropriate because of a curious phenomenon: as interviews go on, even people who are reticent at first tend to open up, and a few will begin dishing out specifics about people and personalities that they later regret but are easily removed from the transcript. As it is increasingly assumed that video will be the final product, however, interviewees now tend to go into sessions with a bit more circumspection.

How to Use Oral History

With the project complete, the question becomes, how to use it? There has been a great deal of discussion, mostly in academic circles, about how oral histories should be used. Some of it has to do with the privileging of certain voices over others, some stems from the perceived trustworthiness of a particular type of interviewee.  In doing research in oral history collections kept in university archives I have even found notes attached to transcripts that said, in effect, “don’t trust this person—I don’t like what he said.” Those oral historians or archivists may have good intentions, but I believe that decisions about the validity of an interview should always be left to the historian using it. Documentary sources can have equally significant, if different, problems of accuracy and bias.

Finally there is the question of accessibility. The majority of my interviews have been conducted as part of a corporate history book project, with the client opting not to make them publicly available. They go onto a disk or into a box for future historians to use. Other interviews, including my ongoing work for the SEC Historical Society, go online shortly after conduct. In a few cases I have conducted interviews for clients who wanted to preserve the record for posterity but for the time being chose to keep them under lock and key. A current client intends to put a 20-year lock down on the interviews.

That is unfortunate for contemporary scholars and writers, but in the span of history that is covered in the average interview, twenty years is not that long a time. It is much better to do the interviews than not. And it is gratifying to know that when both I and the interviewee are gone, some future historian will delight to find an oral history interview that provides at least a few of the pieces of the historical puzzle that he or she will be working on.

If preserving your organization’s past for the future is a piece in your puzzle, give me a call to discuss an oral history project.

Voices and Viewpoints Part I: Getting Set for an Oral History Session

I had been an oral history consultant for a decade before I discovered how important my work could be. It happened one the day in 2005 when I visited the home of labor lawyer Eugene Keating.  He was in bed, weak with cancer and days away from the end, but Keating wanted to get his story on record. We did.

Ultimately history is about people, and historians have a duty to men and women like Keating who take their life’s work seriously and understand its historical importance. Oral history is the way that we fulfill it.

There are interviewers whose method is to start the recorder, let the interviewee talk, and sort it all out later. That is not my approach. True, the session should be all about the interviewee, but I’ve always believed that was up to me to do the work necessary, before, during, and after, to ensure that the results did justice to a morning or afternoon’s interview and a full life’s work.

To honor the commitment of people like Eugene Keating is one reason to hire a professional oral history consultant. There is a second, equally important reason. Some assume that only a lawyer can really interview a lawyer, a scientist a scientist, and so on. It does not work that way. Whenever fellow specialists or veterans of the same organization or get together, they tend to talk in shorthand. Inside baseball obscures more than it reveals. It is difficult for an insider to carry out the kind of discovery that makes for good oral history. Most importantly, oral history is an art, a craft, and a profession—you want someone who has done it before.

What Is Oral History?

Everyone is familiar with interviews. Journalists use them to source their stories, television news magazines present them with ponderousness or sensationalism, and web outlets run lively edited versions. Interviews are good for finding out facts. They usually focus on a particular event or issue and attempt to extract knowledge that will benefit a particular audience in the short term.  In some respects, interviews are dispensable.

Oral histories, on the other hand, are intended to cast a wide net, to capture a life’s work, and they are meant to last. They establish context by starting with personal background, education, and early experience.  They provide perspective by allowing interviewees to talk broadly about their careers—who they worked with, how circumstances changed, and what they accomplished. Finally, a well-conducted oral history should be relevant to more than just the project at hand. While every session must have focus, no interviewer knows exactly what will be of interest a generation from now. Good oral history consultants realize that they have an opportunity that will be unavailable years on, and that they owe it to future audiences to preserve information that will be relevant not only today but tomorrow.

Selecting the Interviewees

Whom to interview? It depends. I have gone into some projects with a special focus in mind such as interviewing the women commissioners of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The majority of my oral history projects are for a company history book or intended to capture the history of an institution like a university or an association. In those cases what I am looking for is perspective. Senior management, both current and former, inevitably make the list because they, more than others, spent their time thinking broadly about the organization, knew what it was up against, and made decisions that changed its history. But if the book is to be a sizeable one there are also specialists who should be on the record, in finance, sales and marketing, even personnel. People in those positions will have perspective and will know details that no one else can provide. The same goes for employees. When I was working on Never Stand Still, a full-scale history of trucking company Consolidated Freightways, some of my most memorable interviews were with drivers. The real finds, of course, are the people who have “worked their way up:” an employee who became CEO, a student who became college administrator—those are the kinds of interviewees who give you the most direct gateway to the history you intend to capture or to write.

Researching the Interview Agenda

Few things are as important to the success of an interview as preparation. Interviewees will quickly discover whether an oral history consultant knows what he or she is talking about. If they do, interviewees will be grateful for the effort and all the more willing to participate constructively.

There are three levels of preparation. First you have to develop the context for the interviewee’s life, particularly the industries or institutions within which they have worked.  Since many of my oral histories are undertaken to support a book project, that part of the job is often taken care of. If not, I usually build a research phase into the project so that I will have the time required to put together the big picture.

Next comes research regarding the interviewee. This may require one of two different approaches. For public figures or industry leaders there will be a great deal of material available in trade journals and newspapers. These people may well have been interviewed before. In such cases the task is to keep the research project manageable—to keep from getting bogged down in the details and to think about how your interview can complement and extend existing accounts. For those who left little public record the approach must be different.  You may begin with their resume (or by building one with assistance from the client or even the interviewee). You can then compare the roles they have played in the institution with the history that you know, figuring out which parts of a company or institution’s history they may have been most directly involved in. That process helps you determine what kinds of things you would like to talk about.

And “talking” is important. A good interview is not a question and answer session. It is a conversation in which the interviewer says little. With that in mind, when I am preparing, I try to avoid drafting specific questions. Instead I prepare an agenda, essentially an outline of how I would like the conversation to go, with broad topics divided roughly into chronological segments: childhood and education, early experience, and landmarks in the later career.

Oral History Technology

One last important point about preparation—you must know how to use your equipment. I have seen interviews spoiled because they were recorded with bad equipment, at the wrong volume level, or with bad microphone placement. I once had a tape recorder fail me in the middle of an interview. I was fortunate that the interviewee was retired, with plenty of free time, and that he was also a gracious person. I excused myself, hurried to the store to buy a new recorder, and for years afterwards I always brought, and used, two machines. Fortunately, I had realized that the recorder stopped working.

The recorder that failed me used cassettes. The one I hurriedly purchased was digital. Now everything is digital, and clients often expect high quality audio. They increasingly expect video as well. You do not have to be a sound engineer to record high quality digital audio, even with multiple mike setups. But I leave the videography up to professionals and am always ready with a recommendation.

The final matter of preparation is scheduling the interview. In almost every case, I leave it to the client to tell the interviewees about the project and to let them know that someone will be coming to talk about their career. Then I follow up with a phone call or email to schedule the session. In some cases the client also asks that I run the outline by the interviewee.

I try to keep this process as simple as possible for two reasons. First, there are those, even the highly accomplished, who will be intimidated by the prospect of an interview. Some wish to postpone the session for weeks or even months so they can do research. I explain that I can get most names and dates from my research, that what I am really after are the things that they will remember—the highlights, not the minutiae, of their careers. Some people wish to rehearse the interview over the phone. I try to discourage that because it takes the spontaneity out of the actual interview, making it less a lively conversation than a dull performance.

When it comes to venue, I am usually amenable to any place that is quiet and comfortable for the interviewee. A secluded room in the house (no grandfather clocks) is good for a retiree. For a working executive that may be an office or a conference room. Some interviewees will want to talk in a public place like a restaurant or a club. I have complied in a few cases but have usually been sorry. There are always distractions and background noise. Nearly every public place has music playing in the background that you cannot escape.

Being Prepared for Special Requests

Most of my book clients just assume that I will be doing interviews of some sort. As part of book projects, audio interviews are almost always appropriate, mostly in person and sometimes by telephone. Although an in-person session usually makes for better rapport and better interviews, I would be hard pressed to come up with an example from the scores of telephone interviews that I have conducted that did not succeed due to the distance.

Early in my career, audio was the standard for more formal oral history interview projects. Lately video has become the standard medium, and while I always use professionals to capture the video, there are important adjustments I have learned to make during a video session.

Interviewers instinctively use verbal cues to let the interviewee know that he is interested and understand. No one notices these until they try to edit out clean excerpts. When you are interviewing for broadcast quality audio or video it is important to leave a clean signal.  Do not say “uh-huh” over the interviewee to show that you understand—nod your head instead. And always wait until the interviewee is completely done talking before you say anything.

Then there is the question of how many people to invite to the party. There is a reason that cameramen wear black—so they stay in the background and interviewees forget about them. At times a client or interviewee will ask that others be present. This is never a good idea. Sometimes the interviewee plays to the crowd.  Sometimes the other party—a well-meaning spouse at the kitchen table, for example—insists on repeatedly interrupting to “clarify” things. I have tried many direct and indirect ways to politely keep observers from interfering. I well remember one instance when the subject, appropriately, stopped the interview and asked his overly helpful wife to leave us alone until the session was over.

Finally, I have had a surprising number of clients come up with the same great idea—have interviewees gather in a circle and bounce old stories off one another. I have been obliged to take part in this a handful of times and it has never worked. There are arguments about what really happened that cannot be resolved. Old associates inevitably lapse into inside baseball that obscures more than enlightens and invariably some people defer while others dominate. In recognition of the importance of every interviewee, I always recommend keeping things one on one.

Next time: How an oral history consultant should conduct the session, what to expect afterward, and how you can use the results of the work.

Authenticity in Anniversary History Books

In my thirty years of researching and writing anniversary history books there have been many moments of exhilaration; times when a discovery or new frame of reference either confirmed or confounded months of theories and assumptions. Some of the enjoyment comes from the thrill of the chase. But there is something more fundamental at work—these are landmarks in the pursuit of authenticity.

Anniversary history book projects usually begin with a few preliminary facts drawn from a Wikipedia article, sources provided by the client, or perhaps a newspaper article or two. They also begin with a received narrative. Nearly every company or organization has a timeline or a page or two of history that has been handed down for years. Seldom do all the pieces fit. There are bulges of detail here, thematically tight spots there, and places where the story thins and disappears. Like clothes off the rack you might have to force them to fit.

History insufficiently researched or incompletely drafted is by nature inauthentic. The story does not make sense or the overall account is too obviously contrived to convince. This is why the process of discovery is so gratifying. Every time you obtain a new piece of the story it helps you make sense of the old ones, every time you challenge and replace an old assumption with a new idea, you are making that fit a little better—you are getting closer to authenticity.

Most of these moments come during research, some follow naturally in the course of writing, but never until recently, writing the 200th anniversary history book for Acker, Merrall & Condit, once grocer, now wine auctioneer, have I had a nagging sense of the inauthentic dog me for nearly the entire length of the project. It was all due to the tradename, “Amcehat.” That was my Rosebud.

Setting the Perspective

 Where to start in the search for authenticity in anniversary history? With Acker, Merrall & Condit, as with nearly all of my projects, I began my research in secondary sources. For some history projects, books are a beginning and an end. You could write a highly detailed and perfectly persuasive history of General Motors relying solely on the 174 histories of GM on the shelf at the Library of Congress. Historical consultants seldom have that luxury, they usually write about institutions that have little or no “literature.”

An early civil engineer’s handbook.

But books are still invaluable sources because they set the perspective and help you begin to think about your subject. For a recent anniversary history of the University of Delaware Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering I began by reading overviews of civil engineering in the United States to understand how to think about the profession.  There were also a few histories of engineering education. Even though the institution that I would be writing about was never mentioned, these books helped me prepare for what I was going to encounter.

For the Acker anniversary book project I turned to a multivolume history of the wine business in America. Because I had started there and learned specifically about America’s sad addiction to sweet red wine between the 1930s and the 1970s, I knew what to expect and what to collect, when I moved in closer to the subject.

Having gotten a sense of perspective on the subject, you can then begin assembling a more detailed picture. The first step is usually newspaper research. When I started as a historian in the early 1990s plowing through papers was tough and time-consuming.  Today, however, you can collect a complete set of articles from newspapers of record like the New York Times and Washington Post and local papers like the LA Times or the Boston Globe in just a few hours on a historical newspaper database. Many trade journals and second-tier newspapers and magazines are equally accessible in subscription databases.

Digging Deep

If you do not write history often, you may think after collecting several hundred articles that you have got the story nailed. I have learned otherwise. Newspaper accounts usually cover the outer shell of the institution that I want to describe. They detail things that the public were privy to—or more accurately things that journalists thought the public might care about. Top leadership, major triumphs, big mistakes, may all be identified. But the rank-and-file, the day-to-day, and what lay behind some of those ups and downs are usually left out.

I was in an Egyptologist’s bedroom when I most fully realized how insufficient newspaper accounts could be. Dr. Kelly Simpson had hired me to write the biography of his father Kenneth Simpson, a now-obscure New York politician who was well-known and exhaustively covered in his day. In researching the biography eventually entitled Life of the Party I had collected and digested hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles ranging from accounts of local political club meetings to a lengthy New Yorker profile. I thought I knew my man.

Liberal Republican Kenneth F. Simpson was well-known in 1930s New York.

After about an hour working my way through the papers that Dr. Simpson kept in his bedroom closet, however, I encountered a cache of letters. Love letters. To and from a woman not Kenneth Simpson’s wife. It turned out that Simpson had a passionate, and horizon-expanding love affair, which his wife knew about, with literary critic Dorothy Dudley for 13 years. Suddenly a lot of things fell into place that had not quite fit before.

I may never experience anything like that moment again, but when I am digging deeper, I usually end up in the archives—any archives I can. Most of the Kenneth Simpson Papers had been left to Yale so I made sure to work through those. I also read the mail of his friends, politicians ranging from Thomas Dewey to Fiorello LaGuardia. Because other historians have told us much about those two, how they interacted with Simpson told me much about my subject.

With public figures it is easy to follow the archival trail.  It is harder, but still feasible to do so with institutions as well. If the industry was regulated, then the appropriate agencies left records in the National Archives.  If a company operated during wartime, then it interacted with government agencies that mobilized manpower and resources—and kept records. And if company managers were influential, wealthy, or perhaps just public spirited, their papers may have ended up at a university.

And then there is the internet. It is remarkable how much authentic primary material has been scanned and put online in recent decades. Since Acker, Merrall & Condit kept no archives, much of the most detailed research for my company anniversary history book was by necessity done on-line.

Photographs were a real problem. At one point, Acker was one of the largest luxury grocers in the United States. It was a New York City institution with dozens of stores. But neither the client, the newspapers, nor the editorial photo services could provide images of any of them.

But at some point, someone took an 800-plus page bound volume off the shelf of a library—Case Files of the New York State Supreme Court, 1905—and scanned them for Google. I had been trying various keyword combinations for months when that document came up in my browser. Buried deep within it were a few pages about an inconsequential lawsuit and an exhibit: a lengthy sales brochure full of photographs of Acker, Merrall & Condit stores circa 1900. It was another moment of exhilaration and suddenly my anniversary history book became much more authentic.

Staying with the Story

It is because of experiences like those described above that historians love doing research. Some amateurs and even academics never seem to get past that stage. A historical consultant needs to begin writing on schedule, however. But even then, the pursuit of authenticity should not stop.

Having done the research, reviewed the sources, and written the outlines, it is tempting to think that you know the story. Try writing it down. Inevitably those bumps and lumps start to appear. Even worse, the seams do not line up straight. Sometimes the research is thin, but it is equally likely that you have simply failed to think things through. Writing forces you to do that.

It is all too easy to cling to that received narrative that the client bestowed upon you months earlier. That was the case with a trade association history anniversary history book that I edited several years ago.  The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) was formed in the mid-1800s. Since at least the late 19th century, PPA “historians” had been writing that the association was formed to fight a patent case, and that it did so and won.

The first draft conformed to that narrative. But it did not work. The organization had been formed in December 1868; documents indicated that the patent case had been closed in July 1868. For more than a century the cart had been before the horse—instead of forming the group and winning the case, the photographers had won the case and then formed the group. A small adjustment perhaps, but things like that make the difference between the authentic and the unconvincing.

One of the unusual “AMCEHAT” labeled products sold by Acker Merrall & Condit at the turn of the last century. (Courtesy Montana Heritage Commission)

And finally there was my “Rosebud;” the time I nearly missed something that might have been lost forever. As I worked on my Acker Merrall & Condit anniversary history book, I wrote at length about the company’s nationally known house brand, “Amcehat.” This appeared to be an acronym, but of what? Inexplicably, nothing in the thousands of pages of evidence I had collected seemed to offer a clue.

After completing a sadly inauthentic chapter draft, I decided to sift once more. I found, deep in that sales brochure buried in the New York Supreme Court Records, a page with notice in its lower left-hand corner that read: “Amcehat: Acker Merrall Condit Eighteen Hundred And Twenty.” It was the first time that I had ever noticed anything like it. The company had made up a brand around its founding date—and then pretty much kept it a secret. I had missed this lone notice the first few times through the source because I had been so excited about the rare photographs. A small thing, perhaps, but no one is likely to write a history of that company ever again. Had I missed it, “Amcehat,” like the original “Rosebud” from the movie Citizen Kane, would have gone into the furnace unseen. In pursuing authenticity I had done my part for posterity.

Do you have a story yet to be discovered or corporate culture likely to be lost? Give me a call to discuss your anniversary history book.