Graeme J. Milne
Business history is a relatively young branch of historical studies, but it builds on older traditions of writing about trade, industry, work, and the economy. It is now a wide-ranging field, encompassing everything from micro-studies of individual firms and entrepreneurs to much broader work on entire industries and sectors of the economy. It also has many overlaps and synergies with other histories, touching on society, culture, and politics, and offers historical context to current concerns about globalisation and the environment. Although mostly associated with the period since the Industrial Revolution, there are now active branches of the field applying business history methods to the Middle Ages and earlier eras.
Historians use two very broad categories of primary sources for business history: those generated by companies themselves, and those created by outsiders. Both categories include a huge range of source types, and the list is expanding to include previously neglected materials. Business historians often benefit from research in related fields, drawing inspiration from the sources and methods not only of other historians, but of the many social sciences that focus on business and management in the present day. While this chapter introduces a number of important sources, the scope for finding new ways to approach the field remains considerable, and it is constantly evolving.
For much of the twentieth century, the most common kind of business history was a case study, usually relying on the archives and managers of a single firm for information. Such work was sometimes very revealing, offering insights into pioneering, powerful and influential firms. However, many studies took a celebratory and promotional tone, setting out a narrative of seemingly inevitable success and progress. It was very hard for historians to be critical in those circumstances, especially about events in the recent past. Since the 1960s, economic and business historians have brought a wider range of approaches to bear, and have transformed the field into one that applies many theories and methods to a broader variety of evidence and sources (Boyce and Ville, 2002; Wilson, 1995). Case-study approaches remain common and useful, provided they are put in that wider context.
Histories of business culture have often taken on broader significance, even being used as explanations of national character and development. This is particularly the case in Britain, where the country’s relative decline from being the first industrial nation caused much soul-searching in the later twentieth century. There have been persistent debates around the idea that British industry was poorly managed, failed to invest in training, research, and innovation, remained complacent in the face of foreign competitors, and was held back by hostile and fractious relations between employers and workers (Rubinstein, 1993; Wiener, 1981). Although most business history does not pretend to tackle such huge problems, this is a useful reminder that the scope of the field can be much wider than might be supposed.
Most business historians see the works of Alfred Chandler (1964, 1977, 1990) as fundamental to the development of the field. Chandler’s landmark studies revolutionised research into management, company structure, decision-making, information-handling, and relations between firms. Chandler focused mostly on very large, American manufacturing firms, and their ability to grow by drawing every stage and aspect of their activities into a closely managed structure (an approach he called competitive managerial capitalism). He concluded that British and German firms followed less successful paths, with the British in particular retaining an older and inefficient form of ‘personal capitalism’. Later scholars studied those alternative models in more detail, finding that even small firms could challenge the integrated American model by subcontracting and collaborating with one another to produce goods and services. Key work by Boyce (1995) argued that dealings between firms can be just as important to understanding the world of business as the management and operations inside any given company.
That remains a fundamental question for anyone constructing a project in this field – whether to study the internal life of the company, or its relations with the outside world. Most importantly, it has major implications for the sources used. Large, integrated firms generate their own archives, with many departments, divisions and branches producing paperwork and reporting to a head office. They have broad categories of documents that are intended for use within the company, such as financial reports, personnel records, technical and building plans, minutes of meetings, and records of management decisions. These provide a huge resource for historians trying to establish what those firms did and how they did it (Yates, 1989). Smaller companies produce similar material, but often in a much more fragmented way. A firm with only a handful of employees may not have a separate human resources department, for example, so employee records are just part of the owner’s files. Many small firms are short-lived, and their records vanish when their founders sell up, go bankrupt, or move on to another firm. The survival rate of small firm archives is very low, and this can pose problems for historians, who usually have to study firms that were larger and more successful than average, simply because those are the firms that leave records behind them.
Some business records are intended for external use, and this opens up an important category of material. Firms usually need to communicate with suppliers, customers, and regulators. Until the mid-nineteenth century, this would be done overwhelmingly by letter or in face-to-face meetings that would then often generate some kind of written record. Letter-books containing copies of incoming and outgoing correspondence are therefore a common and revealing source for business historians. Later, correspondence was conducted using new technologies, from the telegraph in the 1840s, through the telephone in the 1880s, to telex, fax, email, and most recently websites and apps (Lipartito, 1989). Some of this poses problems for historians, because finding evidence for verbal communication is often not easy, and archives are still struggling to develop ways of preserving and making available information held in electronic form. Still, the study of communications is crucial to business history in two ways. The information and ideas being communicated are often fundamental to understanding a firm and its place in the economy. In addition, the changing form and nature of business communication casts light on wider issues at the heart of an increasingly connected world.
Many of the largest surviving sets of sources for trade and industry are generated not by companies but by state institutions. For centuries governments have measured trade, partly to levy taxes on it, and partly to monitor the overall health of their economies. Industrialising states modernised their administrative technologies in the nineteenth century to increase the volume, reach and accuracy of economic record-keeping. Beyond government, banks, credit-rating firms, and insurers kept detailed files on companies. Newspapers have, since the eighteenth century, been a major source for data about trade, industry, and the economy. Local directories and almanacs, originally created as an aid to doing business, are now the most comprehensive sources we have for the existence and location of companies in a given area at any point in historical time. Crucially, such sources go beyond the largest firms, and include material about the huge numbers of small companies that are hardest for historians to study.
Sources that offer information about a wide range of firms – even, potentially, about all firms in a town or district – are particularly useful for research into business clusters and local business cultures. This has become a key focus for students of globalisation, given the importance of districts like Silicon Valley in California, or the high-end design and manufacturing clusters that persist in northern Italy and Switzerland. Historical work on older examples, such as the various manufacturing areas of northern England and the City of London, has revealed the complicated mix of dynamics at work in creating and maintaining such business districts (Michie, 1999; Wilson & Popp, 2003).
Perhaps inevitably, a large proportion of business history has focused on the production side of the economy, writing about firms that make and build goods and products, or extract them from natural resources. There is also a strong historiography that considers distribution and enabling functions, with work on transport, finance, banking, and trade (Johnman and Murphy, 2007; Jones, 1993). Studies of the consumption side of the economy are less numerous but growing in number recently, as historians work on advertising, marketing, and the reception of a firm’s goods by the market and the buying public. There are also increasing numbers of cultural historians working on consumerism, especially through its connection with histories of gender and race (Loeb, 1994; McClintock, 1995). This has become an important international aspect of the field. Although American business pioneered mass marketing, other countries developed their own distinctive advertising cultures, and offer important comparative studies. Different sources give us insights into these aspects, and there has been a particular growth in the use of visual media by business historians studying the impact of companies and their products. As business history continues to expand its research questions, so it is also engaging with an ever-wider source base.
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on three broad categories of sources for business history, offering an overview of the kind of materials available, and how we identify and select those likely to answer our research questions.
Letter books and business correspondence
Business communications offer insights into the thinking of managers and entrepreneurs, and into the everyday administrative processes of companies. Survival of this material is extremely varied, however. The most complete company archives contain long runs of incoming and outgoing letters, bound up in books that are sometimes even indexed by name. Most collections are much patchier, leaving the historian to piece together events by cross-checking with other materials from around the same dates, often with only one side of the correspondence available.
Bound letter-books can be large and physically hard to use. In the nineteenth century, copies of outgoing correspondence were made by pressing wet ink onto tissue paper, so surviving pages can be fragile and difficult to read. Typewritten carbon-copies were an improvement, and photocopies better still. However, the sheer volume of correspondence often led to companies disposing of material before it reached an archive. Any project hoping to use a large amount of business correspondence from a particular collection will need to estimate how many letters can be studied in the available time, and then sample accordingly.
As well as the physical problems, company correspondence poses conceptual challenges. Much of it is routine and formulaic, relating to orders, contracts, and procedures. This can still be useful for establishing how a firm’s processes worked, and for tracing the development of office practice. The social, cultural, and technological history of white-collar work remains underexplored by historians. Careful scrutiny of correspondence can reveal important issues about the work of clerks, secretaries, and managers, the adoption of new filing and copying technologies, and turn-around times for decision-making. Ideally, this information is used along with personnel records or meeting minutes to ascertain more about the work and the workers involved. For this kind of study, an extended run of correspondence might be necessary to reveal how information was handled and processed in an office over time.
Most business historians look to correspondence for the opinions and worldview of managers and entrepreneurs. Letters can set out the particulars of a deal between two firms, for example, revealing their attitudes to each other and their customers, and how they perceive the industry and economy that they work in. The language used, the amount of information given, and the speed and progress of a negotiation can offer unique insights about business culture. Other correspondence goes beyond business to engage with government and regulatory authorities, and here again the attitudes of leading figures can be uncovered through their letters. Historians seeking this kind of information might not need a systematic sample of a collection, focusing rather on letters that seem to have more information than average, which are signed by particular individuals, or which relate to a major contract or controversy. Powerful as this evidence can be, however, it is always important to remember that a large proportion of business negotiation has always been done face to face. The written record is only the most formal, and not always the most significant, aspect of a company’s deal-making.
Governmental enquiries and regulatory documents
These represent a key category of sources for business, trade, and industry. Legislatures, government departments, and state agencies worldwide have been generating huge archives for centuries, and started publishing large quantities of material in the middle of the nineteenth century. Generically referred to as ‘official publications’, these sources encompass a broad range of evidence including statistics, fact-finding enquiries, reports and analyses, laws, and regulations. As a result, official publications have been heavily used by historians for extended series of statistics about the economy, such as imports, exports, production, transport infrastructure, and employment. At best they go far beyond that, however, to encompass detailed reports and inquiries into particular industries. This was especially the case at times of wider public or official concern, such as for the safety of mining or shipping, the employment of children, environmental pollution, or decline and recession. Very often, the owners and managers of businesses gave evidence to such inquiries, and the voices of the workforce were increasingly heard from the late-nineteenth century.
Governments also collected a large amount of material of international importance, especially when they had extensive networks of embassy, consular and colonial officials. Many of these officers had commercial as well as diplomatic responsibilities, and their reports add up to an impressive volume of evidence about the economic, commercial, and industrial development of many parts of the world. These often have to be used with caution, of course, because they were compiled from the perspective of the foreign power in question. For example, while a British consular official might send home detailed comments on the economy of Argentina, his primary concern was with Britain’s shipping and trade interests – other aspects of the country’s economy, and almost everything about its society and culture, would be treated in a much less comprehensive manner, if at all. The quality of reporting also varied considerably depending on the education and interests of the officers.
Selecting official publications to use in a project can be a daunting task, because of the sheer scale and complexity of the available material. However, they are often very well indexed, and many, including the British collection, are available online in full text (Cockton, 1988). The first step is to identify papers that deal directly with the industry, trade, region, or topic that you want to study. For major economic sectors like mining or textiles, that will usually generate a substantial list. For other areas, or for individual firms, there may not be a specific paper, but your subject will nonetheless appear in more general reports. For example, the huge Royal Commission on Labour reports published in the 1890s took evidence from industries in all parts of Britain, and an example from this key text is considered below. Now that we have the ability to run free-text searches of all these papers, even evidence for minor trades and individual firms becomes accessible. In addition, such is the scope of official publications that it is often possible to approach them laterally. Evidence about mining companies is recorded in enquiries into occupational safety, for example; shipping companies were key witnesses in enquiries about emigration; and tailoring and dress-making firms feature largely in papers about the employment of women. While the scale and complexity of the sources can initially be off-putting, those same characteristics also make it possible to find original and innovative approaches and evidence for projects.
The third source type being examined here is generated by the increasing use of advertising, marketing, and promotional material from the later nineteenth century. Marketing was a crucial part of the growth of mass retailing. Shops became larger and carried a much bigger range of goods, many of which were branded and advertised inside and outside the store. Department stores became brands in their own right, creating a shopping experience that fed a developing culture of consumerism. The growth of print, and later broadcast media, offered new opportunities for visual advertising, while newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations became increasingly dependent on income from advertisers. More recently, companies expanded their publicity efforts to include public relations, with corporate lobbying emerging as a major force in trying to manage the image and reputation of firms and industries. This has especially been the case in sectors like tobacco, oil, and pharmaceuticals, where companies use advertising, marketing, and political networking to defend their interests against protesters from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
As with other kinds of primary evidence, marketing and advertising can be studied at a number of levels. There is much to learn about the historical evolution of methods and practices, as companies developed new ways of selling their products. Market research and testing can reveal a company’s processes and also its attitudes towards its products and customers. Decisions about branding and how to differentiate competing products from one another sometimes have to be traced over decades once an item has been established as part of a company’s own image. Advertising itself can be researched from aesthetic, sociological, and psychological perspectives. Marketing became increasingly international as the twentieth century progressed, with multi-national companies trying to sell their products in many countries, and having to develop an awareness of cultural differences in the expectations and responses of consumers. New media, such as cinema, radio, television, and ultimately the Internet, have further complicated the relationships between firms, their products, and their customers, offering further openings and questions for historians. This has been an important area for business history to interact with cultural and social history, as scholars from many disciplines seek to understand current and past periods of globalisation.
Perhaps because of its attractive range of visual materials, historical advertising is widely collected and curated by museums and archives, and also by amateur enthusiasts. Although original materials can be fragile and hard to handle physically, they are ideal subjects for digitisation projects, with the result that substantial collections are now accessible. Because so much advertising appeared in newspapers, the large-scale digitisation of that source has also generated a sharp increase in the availability of printed adverts, not least because some of it is now indexed. However, it will often be the case that only the visual advertisement itself has been digitised. Any archive from the advertising department or agency that created it is less likely to survive, so it is hard to reconstruct the business decisions that led to the adoption of any given marketing strategy. Projects seeking to understand marketing in its close corporate context will often have a much narrower selection of materials to work with. Otherwise, it is possible to sample sources from a number of angles, based on the industry involved, the format of the material, its chronology or style. It is also possible to sample advertising according to audience and reception, seeking, for example, to understand marketing aimed at people of different genders, classes or interests.
These examples come from the letter-books of Rathbone Brothers & Co., a long-lived merchant firm whose members became prominent in politics and philanthropy in Liverpool and nationally (Marriner, 1961). Partly as a result, their archive is better preserved than most companies in the trade and distribution sectors. The scale and longevity of their operations means that the collection also contains a great deal of evidence about other firms, and it is a good example of a business archive with value beyond the firm itself. Two letters from the 1850s and 1860s reveal issues that could be the subject of further research. The first letter [A], dated from 1862, was written by Lamport & Holt to Rathbones. As with all business correspondence, it is important to establish some provenance. Why was the letter written, and what was the relationship of the correspondents? Sometimes that will be clear from the letter itself, but often it will require further research. In this case, Worthington & Co. was the agent Rathbones used in China, while Lamport & Holt was a leading Liverpool ship-owner. We can assume from the introductory sentences that Worthington asked Rathbones for advice about a shipping issue, which Rathbones passed to Lamport & Holt. This kind of information environment was (and to some extent still is) fundamental to business culture, with firms relying on each other for specialised knowledge and advice.
The key issue in this letter is how to judge the respectability and reliability of companies. This was a major problem for businesses, especially those operating overseas. In this case, Lamport & Holt are sceptical of the ship-owners involved, who had taken advantage of a technicality in the ship’s contracts and documents (the ‘bills of lading’ mentioned in the letter). The best advice, the firm notes, is to deal with people you already know, or who have been recommended by people you trust. Failing that, awareness of certain patterns might help avoid trouble. Checking that a ship is classified as soundly built at Lloyds of London is a first step, but even then, you need to know that the owners are ‘respectable people’. Lamport & Holt then offer rough guidelines, suggesting that ship-owners from some ports have a better reputation than others. Convincing as much of this is, though, it is notable that Lamport & Holt did not actually name any of the firms they thought less respectable, and then as now people had to be careful about the libel laws. Whatever they felt able to put on paper, businessmen knew much more that they only communicated in person to their closest associates, and such information is very hard for historians to access.
This kind of correspondence was very common in nineteenth-century business, especially among trading firms and banks, who regularly had to decide whether to offer credit to customers. Many firms kept ‘character books’, in which they gathered intelligence about companies and made judgements about their credit-worthiness. Credit reference agencies grew up in the later part of the century, monitoring the reliability of companies. All of this was underpinned by the routine exchange of information between firms. These questions of risk, reputation, and information offer many potential research projects.
The second letter [B] was written by George Urmston to Rathbones in 1855. This is a good example of difficulties in analysing business letters that arise because the writer and the recipient knew each other very well, and had many shared assumptions that we are initially unaware of. However, if we read enough of these letters to ‘decode’ them, we gain an important sense of authority, power and status of various players in the company hierarchy.
In this case, George Urmston in Canton, China, is writing to Rathbone in Liverpool. First, we learn something about the logistics of business communication. When this letter was written, the fastest way of sending a message was by ship. We know from the annotations that Urmston’s letter, written on 18 October, was answered by staff in Liverpool on 8 November, so even when transport ran smoothly, correspondents had to factor in weeks or even months for a question to be answered. Firms tried everything to speed up the process. It was common for letters to be marked ‘via Marseilles’: this meant that a letter would go by ship from China to Marseille in the south of France, but then by railway to Britain, which was faster than the ship from that point onwards.
Long correspondence times meant that agents had a lot of autonomy in day-by-day decision-making, because there was no way of seeking advice in time for it to make a difference. Later, telegraph networks, and then telephones, made it possible to communicate faster than a ship could sail, and firms could take closer control over their international operations. Even then, agents continued to have power and autonomy, because their local knowledge was valued. Careful reading of business letters can help establish how these relationships worked: is the tone consensual and constructive, or are orders being given? Behind the formal politeness, who has the power in these exchanges? In this case, there had evidently been some disagreement about Urmston’s awarding of credit without first consulting either Rathbones or their Shanghai correspondents. His letter explains the circumstances. While not exactly apologising, he makes it clear that it will not happen again, and that it arose from good intentions in dealing with a particular client – the sort of scenario, in other words, that he assumed his fellow businessmen would understand.
The rest of the letter offers evidence for the disruptions caused to trade by political unrest in China, which was affecting the textile trade and, in more complicated ways, the tea trade. This kind of routine information about trends and developments is very common in business letters, and meant that merchant communities could be far better informed of international news than the general public. Even such mundane material can cast light on the attitudes of business people to their host countries, especially in an age of empire and, in this case, British dominance of key world markets.
These two letters point to the range of evidence that we can gather from business correspondence, and also the potential for applying these ideas to other categories of evidence within the firm, and in the firm’s relations with the society around it.
The first detailed example from an official publication comes from the Royal Commission on Labour, in a section on the textile industries [E]. The Commission’s methodology was similar to that of hundreds of similar commissions and committees (and remains so to this day). It called witnesses, took detailed evidence, and compiled a report with recommendations for government. The witness in this extract is Charles Wilson, a textile factory-owner who was also President of the South of Scotland Chamber of Commerce. Witness testimony is a fundamental strength of this kind of source. Most people involved in business and industry never wrote memoirs, and most small firms have not left their own archives behind, so answers to a committee’s questions are in many cases the only surviving opinions of thousands of people otherwise invisible to history. That said, the choice of witnesses matched the social assumptions of the day. Most witnesses appearing before business and industry enquiries were men like Wilson: owners, managers, or government officials. Only late in the nineteenth century did workers from the lower rungs of the company ladder start appearing, and they were often chosen by their trades unions. In addition, members of the committee were usually from the same class as their industrialist witnesses. Men outnumbered women overwhelmingly in these proceedings. When interpreting these discussions, it is therefore important to analyse the questions as well as the answers, and the (often very narrow) range of social and cultural perspectives being considered.
The questions and answers in this extract follow a common pattern, beginning with factual statements intended to establish who witnesses were and why they might have useful information to offer. The session quickly moves on to more complicated issues, such as the nature of male and female employment in the tweed industry, rates of pay, productivity expectations, and management practices. It then broadens further to consider workers’ housing, cooperative stores, and saving for retirement. The richness of the evidence presented is quickly apparent, especially given that this is only one witness among dozens interviewed for this enquiry alone. However, close reading of the testimony suggests the need for caution. Wilson often claims that he is unsure of details, and many of his comments seem to come second-hand from foremen or other senior employees. Even without that hint, we might wonder whether a factory-owner was likely to have a deep awareness of his employees’ working and living conditions. Still, so long as the researcher is conscious of such nuances, these sources can help build a more rounded picture of class and gender relationships in industrial society.
If you have access to UK Parliamentary Papers, the second extract from this report is the testimony of Amie Hicks, Secretary General of the East London Ropeworkers’ Union, with extracts here [F]. Hicks’ evidence reflects the gradual widening of the parliamentary enquiry format to include witnesses beyond the ranks of elite men. The early questions put to her reflect the unease of the commission members in trying to place her in the social hierarchy, seeking clarification of her marital and economic status, and of her connection with the industry. Hicks’ subsequent testimony covers working hours, wages, industrial diseases, fire hazards, accidents at work, and the attitudes of employers and workers to the growth of trades unions. Her evidence is appreciably more detailed than that of the employer Charles Wilson, and she takes every opportunity to bring in particular examples and cases. Even so, there are noticeable constraints. Hicks is repeatedly asked about the work of her union, and many questions relate to factory inspection, the particular focus of the enquiry at that point. So we need to be aware that some witnesses are better able than others to get their points across, especially when they are being steered in a particular direction by the thread of questions. In addition, this source is a useful reminder that a lot of our evidence about business and industry is actually about institutions (firms, unions, government agencies) and that many individuals, whether workers or independent entrepreneurs, remain hard to find in these sources.
Revealing in itself, evidence gathered from parliamentary papers can be used as a foundation for deeper study. We can search for evidence given by the same individuals to other enquiries, for other mentions of the same firms, or for follow-up investigations into particular issues. We can cross-reference individuals in the large biographical databases, such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the five-volume Dictionary of Business Biography edited by David J. Jeremy (1985). Daunting as this source can be initially, acquiring an awareness of its structure and form opens up great possibilities for a wide range of projects.
Advertising and marketing
These sources come from the advertising collections of the Cunard Steamship Company, one of the major operators in the North Atlantic shipping industry for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Gladden, 2014). Shipping companies advertised for a number of reasons, most of which are common to many other kinds of business, but a few of which are unusual. Passenger liners catered for several groups of travellers, from emigrants whose main concern was finding the cheapest possible ticket, to some of the world’s wealthiest people, seeking the highest standards of comfort and safety. Some adverts therefore focused on price, while others showed the luxurious fittings of cabins, tried to represent the quality of the food and service, or emphasised speed or reliability. Posters open up many research questions, especially if it is possible to do a comparative analysis of many different examples.
‘America this year by RMS Queen Mary’ from the Cunard Archive [C] is an excellent example of a poster relying on visuals rather than text to set a positive and attractive tone. It includes many elements of 1930s modernity that would seem aspirational and forward-looking to the middle classes, who were starting to travel in greater numbers. The main image of a smiling, fashionably dressed young woman, waving as if she was on a departing ship, created a sense of glamour and style. Across the top, the ship itself looks large and impressive against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. America’s skyscrapers were symbols of modern design and engineering, reinforcing Cunard’s view of its own ships. Everything is clean, sunny and fun.
The second poster [D], also featuring Queen Mary, takes a rather different approach, this time emphasising speed. Again, there is an image of the ship, but this time, instead of sitting majestically in front of the New York skyline, it is steaming powerfully into the poster through the background image of a newspaper. The paper’s ‘headlines’ are the advertising message. There is also a box with an ‘extract from the log’ of the record passage of 19–23 August 1936, and the company’s name is encased in a Blue Riband, emblem of the fastest Atlantic crossing.
Although emphasising speed, this poster is also careful to avoid any impression of recklessness. Safety is a difficult issue for advertisers to confront, because claiming that something is safe can simply remind people that it might be dangerous. Shipping companies represented their ships looking large and strong, giving an impression of solidity and security without having to explicitly call attention to the issue. In this example, the ‘newspaper’ text was also carefully worded to stress the vessel’s ‘sturdy qualities’, with ‘no sacrifice of comfort and quiet’. There is also an appeal to technically minded viewers, with detailed measurements included in the log – far from being a dangerous stunt, the voyage is represented as a managed, scientific accomplishment.
These posters point to a wide range of possible research agendas. Even in this small sample, there are important differences in the use of text and images, and those patterns can be traced over longer time periods and in different markets, revealing much about companies’ perceptions of the literacy, attention span, and priorities of likely audiences. Both these posters emphasise the scale and grandeur of the vessels, but in other markets, comfort and exotic locations were more important: adverts for cruise ships had the vessel on a calm, blue sea, against a background of sand and palm trees. One of these posters ‘stars’ a young woman, while the other has no people in it. Further examples would feed into questions about representation of gender and class in advertising, and the use of ‘ideal’ men, women and families in an attempt to reach (and even create) an audience.
One of the major problems with interpreting advertising is a lack of evidence about its impact. Most of the primary evidence is generated by companies and advertisers, not viewers and consumers. It is sometimes possible to find evidence of customer feedback in business archives, or references to advertising in diaries. Normally, however, we need to remember that when we study historical marketing, our evidence comes from the producer rather than the consumer.
This chapter has introduced a small fraction of the primary material available to students of business history, and has tried to draw attention to the diversity of sources available for research in this field. As well as exploring a broader range of new evidence than ever before, business historians are also able to revisit well-known corporate archives, this time asking new questions inspired by interdisciplinary studies. As with most branches of history, digitisation and online archives have revolutionised access to source material, although this has had a larger impact on sources external to the firm, such as newspapers and government publications. Most of the surviving records produced by individual firms are in local libraries and archives, university special collections departments, or retained by the companies themselves; very little of this is digitised. As some material becomes more accessible, it will be important to remain conscious of the archives that remain harder to use, and to make sure that the skewed nature of the digitised collections does not narrow and limit the scope of business history projects in future.
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