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Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, circa 1724-1977



The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana is the result of the foresight and energy of Isadore Warshaw. Warshaw believed that the history of America was closely tied to the history of American business. He observed, however, that the business community often looked to the future rather than the past and tended not to retain historical company records.  As a result, a number of businesses had no coherent record of their past.  Warshaw realized that these records could be of value one day.

"Sonny" Warshaw, as he was known to family and friends, was born June 12, 1900 and reared in Albany, New York, the second youngest of ten children of Rubin and Ray (Mackler) Warshaw. Although he received little formal education, he started in business as a book scout in 1915 searching for rare publications for dealers and collectors. Later he became a rare book dealer and collector himself. His hobbies included sketching and painting, and several pieces of this self-taught artist's work were exhibited in local banks.

Warshaw's interest in collecting business ephemera began in 1928 when an important event inspired him. In the process of searching for books, he often ran across various pieces of ephemera. In these posters, labels, ledgers, invoices, calendars, business cards, correspondence on letterhead stationery, and advertising cards, he could see the romantic side of big business. One day he ran across an invoice signed by John Forsythe, founder of a New York haberdashery, and sent it to the store. In reponse, he received a thank-you note along with an invitation to select six shirts in appreciation for the item he found. This combination of events encouraged Warshaw to begin a lifelong mission. He opened an office at 61 Columbia Street in Albany, New York, announcing to the business community that he had their history and would make it available.

In 1942, Isadore Warshaw moved from Albany to New York City where he opened an office at 752 West End Avenue. In 1944, he married Augusta Levy, a former buyer for a group of women's ready-to-wear shops in Miami, Florida. They had no children. A portion of their apartment was used as an office where Mrs. Warshaw handled all the correspondence. The Warshaws lived with the fear of a fire destroying the collection because this was their sole source of income. Insurance companies informed them that in order to insure the collection, each piece would have to be counted. As a result, the collection was never insured. A fire did occur once in the building but only a small portion of their vast holdings suffered from smoke damage.

Warshaw spent a great deal of time at the New York Public Library, museums, and historical societies, gathering ideas and information relating to his business pursuits. He never referred to his time spent researching and collecting as a hobby. As his business began to grow, he relied on as many as forty scouts across the country to hunt for material. He acquired material from companies going out of business, buildings about to be demolished, garage sales, auctions, antique shows, stamp dealers and collectors, old safes, small country merchants, and bookstores. He also advertised in catalogues for the book industry throughout the country.

Warshaw's approach at first was to purchase pieces of Americana in hope of finding a buyer. He mailed thousands of advertisements to his five hundred corporate clients. Rejected items went to a brownstone building that he referred to as his warehouse. Warshaw later discovered that there was more profit in renting materials or selling reproduction rights to the very materials he had once carted away. Companies rented objects or entire packaged displays to commemorate anniversaries, for sales conventions, annual reports, trade shows, lectures, and window displays. A few of his major clients included Johnson & Johnson, Kaiser Steel Company, the Riegel Paper Company, the American Can Company, and the Western Electric Company. Reward posters and gold-rush prints were used as props for TV westerns.

Warshaw used the collection to do various kinds of research for a number of businesses. Sometimes he investigated the history of a firm to supply it with founding dates. He found evidence of expansion and product diversification in various documents in the collection. For example, company records showed that Procter and Gamble began as a soap and candle manufacturer before it expanded to a wide variety of products.

Warshaw also had clients outside the business community. Members of the legal profession relied on his collection for various purposes. Lawyers contacted him when they wanted to convert personal property from estates to cash, and he also served as an expert witness, providing evidence in disputes involving trademarks, copyrights, and slogans.

American Heritage, Life, and other publications wishing to illustrate articles found graphics in the collection. Warshaw swapped items with local libraries and historical societies. Joseph N. Kane used the collection to document information for his book, Famous First Facts.  Commenting on the many uses of his collection, Warshaw stated:

I have been fortunate. As a collector of things that now document the rapid growth of industry, I have been able tofind wide use for my collection. People are beginning torealize that while the romance of war, fashion and science, for instance, is well preserved in swords, wax dolls, and fascinating models...the romance of business in the form of ledgers, sample books, posters, and tin cans tends to perish in debris.  Now people come to me to illustrate histories and to get pictures of things as they were.

As Warshaw aged, he began to look for a buyer for the collection. Ralph M. Hower, at one time a professor of business at Harvard, recommended that the collection be purchased and indexed by the Baker Library at Harvard's Business School. He regarded it as a wealth of evidence on such topics specialization, diversification, and integration of business firms and the location of trade and industry.

Discussions about the Warshaw Collection among the staff of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (then the Museum of History and Technology) began in 1961. The primary reason for the Museum's interest in purchasing the collection was to prevent the dispersal of a unique resource that could never be assembled again. In the opinions of Smithsonian staff, it provided evidence of things that could be found nowhere else.

Although negotiations for buying the collection and bringing it to the Museum began in 1966, the collection was not actually purchased and transported to the Museum until August 1967. Warshaw had moved his business several times and at the time of the sale, it was located in three rooms on the second floor of 270 West 96th Street in New York. Packing the collection took four days and it was transported to Washington by two tractor trailers.

When the collection arrived at the Museum, it consisted primarily of advertising ephemera. There were also a number of three-dimensional objects, including shoes, clothing, jewelry, furs, ashtrays, coffee and tobacco tins, carpets, patent medicines, cosmetics, hair products, paperweights, whiskey bottles, and food packages. The collection was divided into hundreds of subject headings created by Warshaw. Some of Warshaw's personal papers revealing his business transactions were included, as well as advertisements used by Warshaw to solicit business from manufacturers and retailers.  Most of the rest of Warshaw's own papers were destroyed by Mrs. Warshaw when she left New York in 1973.

Following the sale of the collection to the Museum, Warshaw found himself unable to relinquish his life's work. He continued to do research for a number of old clients, relying on such sources as the public library, historical societies, collectors, and dealers in this type of material. In the process he acquired additional material. The volume of this portion of the collection was equal to the size of a station wagon. It was offered to the Museum by Mrs. Warshaw in 1971, and Museum staff went to the New Jersey home of Mrs. Warshaw's brother to pick up the new collection in November 1971.

Curators from the Museum were encouraged to spend time with the collection after its arrival to determine its content in their subject areas. At that time the collection was stored in shirt boxes. Efforts were made to put the materials in vertical document boxes, keeping them in the subject categories created by Warshaw. As time went on, it was clear that the method used by Warshaw was not adequate for research use. Warshaw located materials by hunch rather than by system and there was little cross-referencing in the collection. Not only was it inaccessible to outside researchers, but many of the objects were fragile and required more protection than they had in their original storage containers.

When the Archives Center was established in 1982, it was intended to be a repository for documents and other archival material in the Museum, assuring proper storage and a place where researchers could come to use collections.

The Warshaw Collection was one of the greatest concerns of the Archives Center because of its heavy use. In 1983 the Archives Center and the Division of Conservation worked together to develop a plan to integrate archival principles with conservation methods and techniques, thus taking the first steps in creating a re-housing project.

The first part of the re-housing project began with a survey of the collection to analyze content and condition of the materials. Faith Zieske, a conservator, conducted the survey. She chose a standard statistical analytical method, randomly using 70 vertical document boxes as samples, to analyze the entire collection. Zieske consulted both the Library of Congress Preservation Office and the conservation staff of the Folger Shakespeare Library. A plan was then developed for implementing the survey. After examining the results of the survey, Zieske developed a phased plan for reorganizing and preserving the collection.

Conservation technician Carolyn Long and museum specialist Lorene Mayo began the pilot project in the summer of 1983, testing recommendations made in the survey.  During this period Long wrote guidelines for handling the collection. Long and Mayo also developed new storage containers for housing objects of unusual shape.

As the re-housing project developed, finding aids were created for the processed portions of the collection.  This was a crucial step that allowed staff and researchers to find items without actually going through the collection. Archives Center staff continue to develop means of making the collection more accessible to researchers who come to the Museum to use the collection, as well as to increase awareness of the existence of the collection in the research community outside the Museum.

List of Sources

"Cashing In On Old Office Records." Business Week, (December 6, 1958).*

"A Glimpse at Industrial Advertising of the 80's." Industrial Marketing, (February 1946).*

Interview by Vanessa Broussard-Simmons with Mrs. Augusta Levy Warshaw and Correspondence in Control File for Warshaw Collection.*

Kahn, Joseph. "Trademark Detective: The Colorful Past of American Business is the 'Beat' of a Sleuth Who has Pioneered a New Kind of History." The Rotarian, ( December 2, 1957) .*

Kramer, A. Stanley. "What's Old on Madison?" Madison Avenue. (March 1961).*

Menuez, Caroline Bird. "There's Gold in Your Attic." Esquire, (1946).*

*Located in the control file for the Warshaw Collection.

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Revised: May 16, 2014