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A Summer Intern’s Introduction to the Archives at the VHS

12/16/2015

Below are the reflections of our summer 2015 intern from the University of Virginia, Institute of Public History, Sarah Hainbach.

As an intern in the Collections Division of the VHS this past summer, my work centered around processing the business collection of the twentieth-century firm M. F. Neal & Company. I have to admit to feeling overwhelmed when I first encountered the five boxes of the collection. What was M. F. Neal & Company? Why were its papers at the VHS? Were they historically valuable? I learned that the company was a family business begun in Richmond in the 1920s in order to provide flavors for cigarettes and candy. The collection contained fascinating records of business trips around the world, intriguing links to the tobacco and food industries, and intimate notes between the Neal family members who worked for the firm. However, what I imagined to be the standard components of a VHS “business collection” were missing. Where were the company bylaws, the board meeting minutes, and the tax ledgers? Without these documents, was this really a business collection?  

I took my questions to my supervisor, veteran VHS archivist Laura Stoner. She explained that collections of small family businesses are often missing the more “official” paperwork, because the larger corporations that buy them keep those documents in their own archives. In exchange, family business collections often come with an extra bonus. Personal papers, from correspondence to photographs to school assignments, become intermingled with professional papers when a family runs a business. Desk drawers at work become storage for personal items as well as work-related ones, and when the desk is cleaned out and its contents are sent away to be archived, the VHS acquires both professional and personal artifacts. Laura pointed out that this phenomenon can add another layer of interest to the business collections at the society. By studying the history of Richmond and Virginia businesses, we also learn about individuals’ and families’ pasts. The two categories combine to create a full slice of life. In reality, divisions between the different sectors of our lives—home and work, school and play, family and friends—are not clearly defined. Keeping personal papers with business collections (but in a separate series) reflects this fluidity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the less traditional components of the Neal Collection are the more visually interesting. Below, see an advertisement for the company in the nineteenth century, when it was known as Neal & Binford.

 Mss3 N2455a FA2 Series 1. Box 1Mss3.N2455a.FA2.Ser1.Box1_NealBinford

Mss3 N2455a FA2, Museum itemMMs_front

Although M. F. Neal & Company did the majority of its business with tobacco firms, its work in chocolate left behind, to me, the most interesting materials. The company’s president, Thomas D. Neal, kept souvenirs from his trips to chocolate factories, including old M&M wrappers. One package describes Mars chocolate as “a nourishing food.” Another proclaims M&M’s as the “official snack food” of the 1984 Olympics. These artifacts could prove useful to food historians (and chocolate lovers) everywhere. Did people in the 1980s really believe that chocolate was good for them? When did the pendulum start to swing the other way, toward kale salads and green smoothies? With the M. F. Neal & Company collection and other small-business records from the food industry, hopefully we can learn more about American food history and American business history in general.

Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff. The Virginia Historical Society encourages discussion; however, we reserve the right to remove posts that are offensive, threatening, or insulting. 

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