Monday, December 10, 2012

Business Cards : A Rich Source of Local & Family History

How does it go?..."The only thing that remains constant is change."  I was reminded of that again recently when it was announced in the Kalamazoo Gazette that Mi-Ranchito Restaurant in Oshtemo, a family-owned business for more than 30 years, will be closing its doors on December 31.  Mi-Ranchito has been a major player in my life having worked there through college as a bus girl/hostess, my husband & I courted there, and countless family celebrations have taken place there since then including pre-wedding dinners and 21st birthdays of my kids. 

Oshtemo & Kalamazoo
Admittedly, most businesses don't have Mi-Ranchito's kind of longevity, some coming and going in a matter of years or even months.  Speaking from a historical perspective, what kind of records can we expect to find that document these pieces of our local history?

Since a child I've been collecting businesses cards, to the point where there are hundreds of them.  Since they are a unique and rare snapshot of local history, I decided rather than leave them to the uncertainty of my children's whimsy, it was best to donate all of those from Southwest Michigan to the Local History Collection to be added to the Historic Sites Inventory project set up earlier this year.

The next time you clean out a drawer and sort out business cards that you no longer want or need, before you throw them in the trash consider some of the reasons why they are a valuable form of local history:
Decatur, Michigan
  1. Business name
  2. Address & contact information
  3. Proprietors & Owners names
  4. Types of business
  5. Graphics
  6. Personnel
For those businesses with a long history, a collection of business cards over the years can yield changes in location, owners, employees, and even in the business itself as it evolved.  Many cards have graphics or art work that greatly enhance that history such as the example above of Messner Associates in Decatur that includes a drawing of the historic village of Decatur building in which it operated.

Business cards can come in a variety of forms & represent a variety of entities:
Family History & Personal Interests
  1. Magnets
  2. Political
  3. Organizations & Societies
  4. Private Collectors
  5. Government Officials
  6. Homemade (more in recent years)
  7. (And Yes) Family History

Today, we might dismiss these cards as insignificant pieces of nuisance paper in our wallets, desk, drawers, purse, etc., but they actually have a long history dating back to prominent peoples of 17th century Europe.  By the 19th century, they took on more of a social role as personal cards with the name formerly engraved and often used to pre-announce one's arrival.

The typical size of a business card today is 3 1/2 x 2 inches printed on card stock, but they can appear in all kinds of shapes, sizes, colors and formats.   Although less of a social statement today, business cards still remain a significant advertising and outreach tool for millions.

How will the library organize these cards to make them of maximum use to historians?  As they are added to the Historic Sites Inventory, they will be organized by community.  Then each of the primary components will be indexed in the collection's Local History Master Index (LHMI).  Those who search our databases will be able to locate references to any individual, business or entity name, and also by address. 

So, please think twice before dropping cards, new or old, in the trash as you do your winter cleaning this year.  Any with a reference to a Southwest Michigan community (Michigan counties of Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Van Buren) can be deposited with us.  Just drop them in an envelope and mail them to:  Van Buren District Library, Local History, 200 N. Phelps Street, Decatur, MI.  Or, feel free to stop by in person to donate or to use the Historic Sites Inventory collection.  Contact us with any questions.

 Nameless Picture of the Day

 unknown woman
Photographer - J. H. Prater, Paw Paw

Can you identify the young woman in this carte-de-visite?  Do you have knowledge of the photographer?  Please contact us if you have any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.   

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