Are You “Dun” Researching Your Ancestor’s Business?

If you’re in business today and considering partnering with another company, you might rely on Dun & Bradstreet to acquire “commercial data…on credit history, business-to-business sales and marketing, counterparty risk exposure,…lead scoring” and other business metrics for “more than 235 million companies across 200 countries worldwide.”  You might be surprised to discover that such a modern-sounding company, addressing what seem like contemporary business challenges, dates back to 1841, when the company’s founder “[created] a network of correspondents who would provide reliable, objective credit information to subscribers.” (source)  The company’s name became R.G. Dun & Co. in 1859 after an ownership change, and a merger with a competitor produced Dun & Bradstreet as we know it today.  Despite all the name changes, the company’s mission has remained remarkably consistent.

What has changed is the size of the database and the nature of the companies included.  In the early 1900s, when the database of ~1.5 million merchants first included my great-grandfather, it reflected a time when most businesses were synonymous with their proprietors, making researching the businessman and researching his business nearly identical activities.  From this period two sets of historic R.G. Dun & Co. records are accessible to researchers, making it possible to gain far more insight into our ancestor’s business activities than the usual names and professions we find listed on genealogical records.

Reference books

The first set of Dun records are reference books which were published by a subsidiary called The Mercantile Agency, which maintained offices in many commercial cities.  Local agents worked to identify all the “merchants, manufacturers, and traders” of the vicinity in order to “[supply] information in detail as to the antecedents, character, capacity, and credit of Business Men throughout the civilized world.”  Four times a year, they published an updated list of all these men (and sometimes women), organized by city and state and coded with their business type and credit rating.

1880s R.G. Dun & Co. reference books at the Library of Congress

1880s R.G. Dun & Co. reference books at the Library of Congress

A fairly complete run of these reference books is available at the Library of Congress, covering 1859-1966.  Most of the books are only available as physical books, which must be requested in advance, but the 1900-1924 run is on microfilm, with two reels per edition, or eight reels per year, all of which are stored on-site.  If you know the city and state in which your ancestor was located, it is easy to wind to the section for that state, then to the town within that state, and then scan the town’s list for your ancestor’s name.  In this way I was able to pinpoint one great-grandfather’s entry into the liquor business and trace another great-grandfather’s relocation from one state to another.  For those ancestors I can’t identify when they lived where, using the books to solve such mysteries would be tedious-bordering-on-infeasible.  But they could solve these mysteries if only they were scanned and OCR’ed.  Federal censuses come every 10 years in the U.S., city directories are at best annual, but these books, remember, came out four times per year!  Imagine the kind of granular data available to you if your ancestors were included!

The question you may be asking yourself, then, is whether your small-time merchant, manufacturer, or trader ancestor warranted inclusion?  And the answer to this question is what I find most remarkable about these books — yes!  I reviewed the microfilm from 1900-1914 for Western Pennsylvania, and saw even the tiniest of towns listed with their one or two local merchants.  For Homestead, PA, where I had already compiled merchant lists from censuses, city directories, newspaper records, and synagogue records, I saw that these books covered even the smallest mom-and-pop shops.  These records are not “best of” compendiums; they aimed and succeeded in being truly comprehensive.

Partial list of Homestead merchants. (Source: The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, June 1913. Vol. 181, Part 2.)

Partial list of Homestead merchants. (Source: The Mercantile Agency Reference Book, June 1913. Vol. 181, Part 2.  Scanned from the microfilm at the Library of Congress.)

While the businessmen lists appear to be objectively complete, the subjective nature of their credit ratings makes them less trustworthy.  Having such familiarity with the businesses of Homestead, I was surprised to see that merchants held in high regard by the town’s paper, or whose other activities suggested personal wealth, were given low credit ratings.  It’s clear that one’s rating and success do not correlate in an obvious way.

Agent reports

How the agents arrived at the credit ratings is illuminated by the second set of R.G. Dun & Co. records.  These are the agents’ detailed field reports with the information they collected about each businessman they researched.  Another businessman or bank could order this full report if they needed to know the specific information that went into the credit rating printed in the reference book.

“The information given on this sheet is an answer to an inquiry made by a Subscriber to The Mercantile Agency, who asks for the same AS AN AID, to determine the propriety of giving credit. … the information thus communicated shall be STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL; shall never be communicated to the persons to whom it refers…” (source)

“The information given on this sheet is an answer to an inquiry made by a Subscriber to The Mercantile Agency, who asks for the same as an aid, to determine the propriety of giving credit. … the information thus communicated shall be strictly confidential; shall never be communicated to the persons to whom it refers…” (source)

These records are much harder to get a hold of.  Very early handwritten records from 1841-1891 are available at the Harvard Business School library, but they are off-limits to genealogists.  No one I’ve spoken to, neither reference librarians, nor the current-day D&B employees I’ve contacted, knows where the later, typewritten records are.

The early agent reports consist of handwritten volumes divided by state and indexed by the last and first names of the people included.  It proved too challenging a system for me to review all the merchants of Homestead or even Western Pennsylvania as I had intended, but I was able to look up the individual merchants whom I had previously identified from other sources.  The entries I read were fascinating and colorful.  Somehow the agents gathered detailed information about whether each businessman paid his bills on time or owned real estate, what were the his character and net worth, and how he and his family members were connected to each other’s businesses.  Multiple entries were recorded over many years, tracing the cycle of a person’s fortunes.  All of these notes served to answer one question:  If you loaned this person money or sold him goods on credit, what was the risk you won’t get your money back?  For example:

  • About a peddler in 1882, “Does a pretty [fair business], but not in a position to be sued if not disposed to pay…Not in the market for credit.  Cash only suggested.  Could not force collections.  Said to have means but in such shape could not attached.”
  • About “a peddler traveling with his pack upon his back” in 1882, “He has a [modest] line of credit at home.  Is considered honest and manages to do a fair [business] is inclined to be a little slow of late.  He is not thought to be worth much and should buy sparingly.”
  • About a tailor in 1883, “His financial responsibility limited and the trade in some instances go cautiously, selling him on sharp 30 days.”

Not all were assessed so critically, though most of the small-time merchants I was researching were.  A couple more positive examples:

  • A man with a highly-regarded feed store in 1884, “is spoken of as a very reliable close going man.  Strictly honorable in all his bus. dealings.  Owns property in the 19th ward.  Does a very snug [business]. Pays his bills promptly.  Making money and knows how to take care of it.  [Estimated worth] 5 to $8,000.”
  • About a wholesaler in 1881, “In [business several years] – [should] be [doing] well + [thought] to hold his own at least.  Active + [attentive,] [regarded] honest.  His father failed some [years] ago + it was the impression that he was connected with it – this had the effect of impairing his [credit].  We hear no complaints as he was credited [small amounts] by some here. Is [worth] at least 2-3 [thousand] $ now worthy [modest credit], though a little caution [should] be used in granted large [credit].”

Some entries betray the latent biases of the period. My particular interest was in researching Jewish merchants, who were easy to pick out since agents took care to note this characteristic — sometimes benignly (“a Jew”), and other times insinuatingly (“a very close Jew”). One merchant, agents noted repeatedly, was called “Jew John” by his neighbors (his name was Leopold).  “Not in favor here,” one agent summarized about him.  Though it’s impossible to know just what put the agents off men like “Jew John,” the cumulative effect of their field notes gets at a certain reluctance amongst by the establishment to trust people not like themselves in business matters.  And yet, as difficult as such raw material is to read with its transparent racial, religious, nativist, and even socioeconomic biases, it certainly adds insight into the challenges such men faced in trying to overcome these prejudices.

(Researchers are not permitted to photograph these books, which is unfortunate, as the entries are written in difficult handwriting with numerous abbreviations (all of which I replaced in my transcriptions for readability).  Please forgive any errors.  You can see a couple photographs of other Dun records here, if you’re curious.)

Research opportunities

Unfortunately, I am not yet able to complete the circle of research.  While I have the credit ratings for the Homestead merchants for whom I’ve been able to compile detailed biographies, I haven’t been able to find the internal reports for anyone from that time period, Homesteader or otherwise.  Do the internal reports match up with the pile of evidence I’ve collected from other sources?  If not, why?  Is it because the agents, coming from outside of the community, couldn’t truly penetrate the complex social dynamics that made it possible for men who seemed like the Other to gain acceptance?  Is it because the agents only interviewed men like themselves, who had a vested interest in raising the status of men in their own networks and lowering the status of their competitors from other backgrounds?  Is it because by ignoring informants from marginal groups, the agents overlooked the role of ethnic support systems in advancing the members of their own group?

These elusive, later agent reports are a critical missing piece in my research.  Despite years of looking for untapped sources, I have not been able to find anything even remotely comparable to the unfiltered assessments of the early agent reports. I crave this level of insight into how the community I am researching was really regarded by outsiders.

So — my immediate goal is to interest someone, anyone in digitizing the printed, quarterly reference books.  Their genealogical value is significant, and their layout makes them well-suited to search engines already commonly used.  Update January 2022:  Mission accomplished!  The Library of Congress just posted the digitized volumes for 1900-1924 (the microfilm portion).  The earlier years, 1859-1899, should be added starting in spring 2022. Thank you to Natalie Burclaff at the LOC for championing this project and to everyone else at the LOC who made this happen!

My secondary goal is to continue to dig for the internal reports, which I believe are still held by Dun & Bradstreet.  Selfishly, I need them to complete my personal research into the merchant class of Homestead.  But if Dun & Bradstreet were open to donating their reports to an archive with fewer research restrictions attached, the unique observations they record could allow family historians to see their merchants ancestors from a new angle.  Wouldn’t you love to know if your ancestor made his fortune by selling “[dry goods] + made up Underwear…on the [installment] plan” to “‘Fancy Women’ [hereabouts]?!”

Further Reading

These records have formed the basis of many fascinating and remarkably in-depth studies.  Here are a couple on early Jewish merchants that make me salivate over the possibilities of what these records might contain for the community I am researching.

The 1900 Census in 1900

Censuses are the bedrock of genealogy.  More than any other record they track our ancestors through time as they grow up, get married, have children, suffer losses, move addresses, and change professions.  But for as useful as they are, they are frustratingly unreliable.  Why don’t people admit they’ve aged ten years from one census to the next?  Why do their names sometime differ dramatically from what they’re supposed to be?  Why aren’t countries of origin and dates of immigration consistent over time?  Despite being government records, we can’t take censuses at face-value without corroborating evidence, and so we spend an awful lot of time debating how the information they’ve recorded got so bolluxed up.

youmustanswerA trove of articles I’ve uncovered from The News-Messenger, the local paper of Homestead, Pennsylvania, sheds some light on these discrepancies from the perspective of the census takers in 1900.  It’s clear that everyone understood the odds were against the enumerators to get accurate information, but the paper went to great lengths to ensure that “Homestead will not be found in the [class represented] as obstructing the endeavors of the enumerators to get the exact truth in the information they seek” (5/2/1900).  It started by printing the census instructions several times to prepare readers with the list of questions they’d be asked and how to be sure of answering them accurately.  In case the instructions weren’t enough, an often hilarious article from May 17, 1900 resorted to dire warnings: Continue reading

An Accident of the Lunar Calendar, 1888

Thanksgivukkah 2013Tomorrow, for the last time until the year 79811, Thanksgiving overlaps with Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrating the Maccabees’ victory over the Greeks.  There have been only two previous Thanksgivukkahs since Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving in 1863.  Naturally the word — and all the attendant marketing — are solely a product of our times, but here are some highlights of how the first one was reported in 1888, when people still couldn’t agree how to spell Chanukah (Chanucca?!) and the holiday had to be explained to readers variously as the “Jewish Thanksgiving” or the “Jewish Christmas.”


The Jewish Thanksgiving

To-morrow is recorded on the Hebrew calendar as Chanukah, the Jewish Thanksgiving, and it will be observed in much the same manner as the national holiday.  It is the occasion of entertainments and the extending of aid to the poor…

Cleveland Herald, November 28, 1888


How Hebrews Commemorate Achievements of Judas Maccabeus

Beginning this evening, Chanucca, the Feast of Dedication, or as called by Josephus, the “Feast of Lights,” will be observed by the Jews all over the world.  By an accident of the lunar calendar it is celebrated by the Israelites of this country this year in conjunction with Thanksgiving Day.  Several years ago it fell late in December, when it was compared to Christmas

Baltimore Sun, November 28, 1888


Thanksgivukkah GothicTWIN FESTIVALS
A Memorable Day for the Hebrews of New York

In perfect consonance with the sentiments above expressed, the one hundred thousand Hebrews and more of New York city yesterday celebrated a double Thanksgiving.  It just happened that both the Thanksgiving and the Chanuka festivals occurred on the same day.

Loyal to the core as American citizens, not a single Hebrew congregation failed to observe the President’s commands, the words of whose proclamation were recited distinctly from the pulpit of every synagogue in this city.  The feast of the Chanuka does not call for any especial services in the places of public worship, as its observance is one more congenial to the home than to the church.  Yet any one who visited the various synagogues yesterday must have been astonished at the large number of worshippers present.

The two festivals merged well together.  The great American Thanksgiving was an incentive to these people to pour out their hearts before God and to make them feel that for once they were made to understand that all people are one before the Lord.  At the same time the Chanuka, or festival of dedication, celebrated for ages by their ancestors, appeared to them again as a thanksgiving festival for deliverance from the tyranny of that Syrian despot, Antiochus..


Combined Thanksgiving and Chanuka services were held by the Congregation Gates of Prayer, Rev. Dr. de Sola Mendes, in the synagogue in Forty-fourth street…  Dr. Mendes spoke as follows: —

“‘Enter ye his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise; give thanks unto him; glorify his name.’  So spoke the Jewish psalmist of old, and in words that have become immortal.  So speaks the great and reverent heart of the mighty nation which distinguishes itself from all others by the institution of an annual day of Thanksgiving. It is a nation that is not too busy to take a day for the expression of gratitude toward the Giver of all good.  Although we, as observant Hebrews, have already celebrated our Feast of Tabernacles, our harvest home, still proud are we of the opportunity of worshipping with our brethren of other faiths, and we are the last to grudge an additional day of duty to God in the busy year.  The American nation, rising above differences of religious belief, says ‘as long as ye are worthy citizens, loving what is right and doing it, it shall be no man’s business to ask you what your religious faith is…'”

New York Herald, November 30, 1888

Would You Abandon This Woman in Liverpool?

Fanny c. 1910

This picture of my great-grandmother Feige (later Fanny) is one of the heirlooms I treasure most.  When my grandmother, her youngest child, was alive, it had pride of place in her apartment, and I used to stare at it for long stretches, imaging the life of the woman with the beautiful, plumed hat.  This photograph was probably taken when Fanny was in her late teens, only a few years after she immigrated from Russia to Philadelphia at age 15. But she almost didn’t make it!

Her father arrived in Philadelphia in late 1901 and worked for three-and-a-half years before he bought tickets on 5/3/1905 for his wife, his eldest daughter Feige, and Feige’s five brothers and sisters to join him. The Skversky family traveled from their hometown to Hamburg, and on 8/5/1905 they sailed from Hamburg to Grimsby then took a train to Liverpool. They were then supposed to have boarded a ship on on 8/9/1905 to take them to Philadelphia. But this is the ship manifest I found for that journey:

8/9/1905 struck-through ship manifest for Skverskys

I was unsure what it meant that their names were crossed off until I found this second manifest from a week later, also for a Liverpool to Philadelphia journey:

8/16/1905 ship manifest for Skverskys

I now understood that the family must have belatedly changed their minds about the first ship.  But why?  A closer look at the second passenger list shows a problem that begins to unravel the mystery:  There are only five children with my great-great-grandmother, Malke!  Fanny is missing!

These manifests are frustratingly mute about this traumatic chapter in my family’s history.  Why was Fanny left behind?  My first instinct was that she had gotten too sick to travel. Perhaps it was too expensive for her mother and five siblings to remain with her while she recovered.  Did they expect she would recover?  I dwelt on the heart-breaking possibly that when they parted, they might not have known if they would ever see each other again.  Genealogy friends suggested a less fraught scenario:  she had to stay to work to pay for her fare.  Though a common occurrence, I doubted this possibility in Fanny’s case, since I had the receipt for all the tickets her father purchased:

5/30/1905 Rosenbaum Bank record for rest of Skverskys

This receipt for the tickets my great-great-grandfather purchased to bring his family over comes from the Rosenbaum Bank Passage Order Book records.

My first guess turned out to be right.  The real story eventually came out via my mother’s second cousin, Rhea, daughter of Fanny’s sister Sarah.  She had heard that the family had had to leave someone behind in Liverpool due to illness—but Rhea thought it was her grandmother!  As with so many family stories, the kernel of this story was true, if not the specifics.

Obviously Fanny made it to Philadelphia, where I know she married Abe of the “severed” pinky and lived the rest of her happy life.  But when did she arrive?  It took me a while to find her listing, because her last name was misspelled.  It turns out she departed on 11/29/1905, two and a half months after her mother and siblings left her, arriving in Philadelphia 107 years ago today!

High on my list of genealogy mysteries to solve is exactly what happened to Fanny during the long months when she was apart from her family.  After years of being told that no relevant records survive, hope finally came via Saul Marks, an expert on Jewish genealogy in Liverpool.  He writes:

In answer to your query, I can’t imagine there would be many records at all of Fanny’s few months here in Liverpool. As a child, she wouldn’t have joined a synagogue & she wouldn’t have been listed in trades directories or electoral rolls. She may have lodged somewhere but I suspect that the most obvious place she stayed would have been the workhouse infirmary. There are admission & discharge records held by Liverpool Record Office for the former workhouse on Brownlow Hill, so we could investigate these

Unfortunately the Liverpool Record Office is in the process of moving facilities, so their records will not be available to researchers until May 2013.  In the meantime, the woman in the plumed hat keeps the answers to herself.

The Care and Feeding of a Newborn in 1945

I get such joy from the many wonderful things my grandmother saved during her life, from the rose she carried at her wedding to her letters from a European trip.  My latest fun find is a set of doctor’s instructions from my uncle’s infancy in February-May 1945, which provides a fascinating window into state-of-the-art baby care, 1940s-style.  Primarily her doctor is instructing her how to mix her own formula using a variety of brand-name supplements.  Though the mid-century decline in breastfeeding is usually tied to the introduction of formula in the ’40s, it appears that the proliferation of such supplements also contributed.  Though we now know that breast is best, this baby was born when better living through science was the national religion.

You’ll also see instructions for cleaning the baby’s navel, which respond to a different innovation from the ’40s:  the introduction of newborn nurseries in hospitals, which increased the risk of cord infections.  Judging by the dates, mother and baby were in the hospital for a week post-birth.  Though the duration put baby’s belly-button at risk, overall the length of stay is one way in which the ’40s had it right.

Here are some of the highlights.  Click on any image to see it full-sized:


The Wayward Cows of Yore

What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than a jaunt through early Americana!  When my dear friend Robert Riger searched New England Historic Genealogy Society‘s collection of Early American Newspapers, 1690-1876 for ancestors, he instead found their lost cows!  With his permission, here are my favorite clippings from his entertaining trove of historical lost-and-found:

We start exactly as you would expect.  Here is a plea for the return of a lost cow to Robert’s first cousin five times removed:

Second missing cow

Fortunately, it appears that bovine finders were not keepers — at least not amongst Robert’s ancestors.  Here Robert’s second cousin six times removed reports that he found someone else’s lost cow:

Third missing cow

And here Robert’s second cousin seven times removed also tries to be helpful:

First missing cowRobert’s ancestors relied upon the newspapers for information about many other kinds of lost items, too, even dead fish:

Missing fish

Let you get the wrong impression about what sort of man would obsess over missing fish, it was likely this Captain Blunt, Robert’s five time great-grandfather, who navigated Washington’s ship across the icy Delaware.

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Eleven years later, one of these guys would have his dried fish stolen.

Turning to a more serious loss, here is Robert’s fourth great-grandfather, who also played a leadership role in the Revolutionary War, reporting:

First Captain Thompson article

It was not the only time Captain Thompson used the papers for help in dealing with his men:

Second Captain Thompson article

Five months later, Raleigh set sail to fight the British.  The following plea for gossip marked Captain Thompson’s return to New England eight months later:

Plea for gossip

Maybe he knows who let the cows out?

Captain Thompson

Not a coward!

The wording amused me when I first read it, until I realized Thompson likely had news of vital importance to a new nation struggling for independence.  As it turns out, he did: a ship accompanying Captain Thompson’s had been captured by the British.  He was rightly reluctant to share this delicate information, for once it became known, he was relieved of his command, accused of cowardice and dereliction of duty.

Whatever additional information was then known, it was not until the 8/11/1927 edition of The Portsmouth Herald that the full story appears in print.  It seems Raleigh and the captured ship had just “loaded with military stores” in France, and on their way home they encountered the English.  The other ship was in the better position to have caught up to Raleigh before engaging, but it did not.  “Captain Thompson seeing that it was then three ships against one, and being loaded with military stores that were very important for the American army, decided not to give battle to the ships.”

Despite the disgrace at the time, Robert’s collection of newspaper articles tracing the remainder of Captain Thompson’s life depict a leading, well-respected citizen, who did not lose any cows or dried fish.  Here is his death notice:

Captain Thompson death notice