There are several places to look for business and
employment information for your ancestors — it’s just a matter of
knowing where to look and how to use the material. In his research
chapter written for the popular guidebook The Source1 , Kory L.
Meyerink tells how business records can be used to “provide important
genealogical information in the absence of traditional genealogical
records, [and to] provide clues that lead to new discoveries.” Business
records can also be used to fill in biographical details to help you
understand your ancestors and the times in which they lived.
The great news for Rhode Island genealogists is that
the Rhode Island Historical Society has been collecting business records
since their founding in 1822. Their manuscripts curator, Richard
Stattler, has compiled a list of the companies represented in their
collections, arranged by topic and with dates of coverage. There is an
amazing breadth and depth to the collection, which represents everything
from individual artisans to the records of multinational corporations
based in the state. The manuscripts date from the early eighteenth
century through the twentieth century. His inventory does not include
individual account books or apprenticeship documents mixed in with
personal papers also found in the collections. Whether your ancestor was
business owner, an employee, or a customer, this extensive collection
of material may be of value to you.
business records can be located using the National Union Catalog of
Manuscript Collections (NUMUC) that can be searched online.
Each entry includes a brief description of the collection and where it
is located. You can then write to that institution to learn about the
full scope of the material and their usage policies.
Peter Coleman’s Transformation
of Rhode Island, 1790-1860 (Brown University, 1963) provides an
overview of Rhode Island’s participation in the Industrial Revolution.
If your ancestors worked in manufacturing, consult the Biographical
History of the Manufacturers and Business Men of Rhode Island at the
Opening of the Twentieth Century (J.D. Hall, 1901) for a history of
larger companies and profiles of their owners.
City directories include a person’s occupation and
sometimes the name of their employer. Directories are also a great way
to trace the growth of a company or its demise. Before deciding that the
business your ancestors worked for is defunct, try to find out through
directories and incorporation papers (see below) whether the business
was acquired or merged into another company.
directories listed the names and locations of businesses within their
area of coverage. Providence city directories began publishing business
listings in the back as early as 1847, arranged by business or
profession. Separate business directories for Providence and Rhode
Island began publication in 1872.
Some modern business records
include a list of employees and what they were paid. In some cases,
there is additional information. At the Rhode Island Historical Society,
the majority of records related to business and employment are kept in
business collections within their manuscripts department. I recently
asked RIHS manuscripts curator Richard Stattler about the types of
information found in employment records in their collection. He replied,
“ First of all, not all of the business collections at the Rhode Island
Historical Society have employment records. Finding them would involve
reading through each of the respective finding aids. Employment
records generally are limited to payroll — who was paid, and how much.
In unusual cases, RIHS might have applications or pension records giving
more data. Individual production records can sometimes be found for
workers paid for piecework. Some of the modern records have seniority
lists, showing date of hire. Some early mill records occasionally list
workers by family, demonstrating a relationship, because they were hired
as a group.”
Journals and Newspapers
The Providence Magazine and Board of Trade
Journal (1889 –1934) was a monthly journal published by
Providence Chamber of Commerce that reported on happenings in the
business community. The Rhode Island Historical Society Library and the
Providence Public Library have complete runs of this publication, and
RIHS keeps a partial index to it. Don’t forget to look for company
periodicals and magazines. For instance, during World War II, the Kaiser
Shipyard in Providence published The Yardarm that included a
profile in each issue on one of the women employed there.
Legislative Charters and Incorporation Papers.
From the 1700s to 1900, businesses frequently
applied for charter from the Rhode Island General Assembly. These
charters are indexed by subject and business name at the Rhode Island
State Library (State House, Room 208, Providence, Rhode Island, 02903,
401-222-2473). The index references the citation for the charter that
appears in the Acts and Resolves of the General Assembly. The staff of
the State Library accepts phone and mail requests for information. The
website of the State of Rhode Island features a databaseof
businesses that applied for incorporation papers from 1984 to the
present. A card index organized by business name for the colonial period
through 1983 is located at the Corporations Division building (100
North Main St., Providence, Rhode Island, 02903 401-222-3040). They
accept mail inquiries and up to three questions via phone.
who owned their own businesses were categorized in a special decennial
census taken in the same year as the federal population census. Consult
Meyer H. Fishbein’s The Censuses of Manufactures, 1810-1890, Reference
Information Paper 50 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and
Records Service, 1973); and Kathleen Hinckley’s Your Guide to the
Federal Census for Genealogists, Researchers, and Family Historians
(Betterway, 2001). Rhode Island industry and manufacturing censuses
exist for the years 1810, 1820, and 1850 through 1860. Since
photographers were considered manufacturers in 1850, they appear in the
manufacturing census. No business was too small for inclusion. Each
listing contained the name of the owner, location, number of employees,
and additional information varying by census.
Through the efforts of the Rhode Island Labor
History Society, the Rhode Island Historical Society has been collecting
union papers for the last twenty years. "A Guide to the Historical
Study of R.I. Working People," by Scott Molloy, et al (RILHS, 1996),
features a description of this particular collection. Richard Stattler
noted that most of the union records included dues and membership books,
but that it varies on a case-by-case basis.
so many resources to choose from there is no reason not to research
your ancestors’ working lives. Why not start today?
1. Kory L. Meyerink, “Research in Business,
Employment, and Institutional Records” (The Source: A Guidebook of
American Genealogy, Ancestry, 1997)