Using the Uncatalogued Archive

Curator's Note

Archival materials provide scholars with some of the best sources for contemporaneous documentation. When we cite archival materials, we refer to the repository, collection, box, and folder—confident that future scholars will be able to cross check our research. What should we do, however, when we use an archive that is uncatalogued, privately held, and inaccessible to other researchers?

Recently I was given access to the private records of a major advertising agency, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO). Founded in 1891, by the 1930s BBDO had become a specialist in corporate image advertising, overseeing campaigns for Du Pont, General Electric, and US Steel. BBDO was a top radio ad agency in the 1930s-40s, producing programs such as Cavalcade of America and Theatre Guild on the Air, and then in the 1950s a top TV agency, overseeing programs such as The US Steel Hour and The Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny. In the 1980s BBDO created the Omnicom Group, today one of the three major advertising holding companies.

This slide show includes examples of BBDO’s internal newsletters, credentials (brochures for potential clients), and advertisements. While the newsletters are a goldmine for advertising history, the ads also provide a record of changing advertising strategies, reflecting evolving cultural and social norms. This brief glimpse should make clear that BBDO’s records are a valuable historical source for American media, culture, and society. I have been lobbying BBDO to donate these records to an archive so that others will be able to access these materials and create more accurate narratives of how American commercial culture evolved.

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