History in Small Doses | Newberry

History in Small Doses

THAT donation was a trip along Memory Lane (or to Memory Library, in my case.)

I was probably, oh, eight or nine years old when my mother brought home the first of the little white booklets. They were short histories, and she thought I might like them. I did. They were handsome little booklets, and they were indeed history. As a small boy, whenever anyone asked me what I liked to read, I would say “History and mystery.” So these were certainly in line with my interests.

Homely and warm though this splotch of nostalgia might be, I must spoil it by adding that I do not remember ever READING a single one of the little white booklets. More of them arrived as my mother and I haunted the shelves where our public library set out the books it no longer wanted, and I think I must have acquired forty or fifty of them as time went by. I can no longer peek into my mind at this distance, but I wonder I never thought about assembling a complete collection of them. Lacking any sort of collector’s guide or price list, I never knew that what I was handling was part of a series of booklets which would one day extend to 5500 different titles. I was also unaware that the booklets I stacked were one man’s great weapon against the encroachment of Comunists on the American Way.

The little histories I was piling up and promising myself I’d read some other day, setting up a lifelong hobby, were speeches published by the Newcomen Society. Named after Thomas Newcomen, a pioneer in steam engines, the society began in England to do honor to technology in modern business. The American version was founded in 1923, and sought to bring business leaders together to promote free enterprise and salute excellence in business. “Business” was defined along broad lines, including the educational community and the military as well as banking and manufacturing concerns. It was a nice, little collegial group that had nice meetings and made nice speeches.

Then, in 1933, it came under the leadership of one Charles Penrose, Sr., who saw potential in the 300-member group. Penrose was a man of action, and within a modest number of years, membership had multiplied by four thousand percent, and the Society was publishing over fifty little white histories every year. He died in 1958, but the Society continued under the presidency of Charles Penrose, Jr. Membership rose by another fifty percent under his management.

Time went by: in the 1980s, the Newcomen Society began to slip from relevance. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, and the Soviet Union on the way out, business leaders found other things to do with their time than join clubs. At one time, everyone involved in any kind of management position anywhere in the country was bound to hear from the Newcomens, but by 2007, the Society quietly shut down, having sold its campus and its collection of models of historic engines. And the little white booklets were published no more.

I’m sure someone out there is collecting these, or at least select volumes. See, the person credited with writing the booklet (usually drawn from a luncheon speech they gave) was the CEO or even founder of the company involved. So you can hear from Mr. Ball, for example, about how his family made the production of canning jars their own, or read what a Mr. Ingram has to say about the success of nickel hamburgers for an outfit called White Castle. Here’s a Mr. Pillsbury, there’s a Mr. Ford. A Mr. Roberts is speaking about the wonders of Oral Roberts University. And if the history of beer companies or mining corporations generally doesn’t do it for you, each branch of the Newcomen Society honored its local business leaders, so here is a history of a noted bank in Boston, or an important insurance company if Philadelphia, a football team in Cleveland, and a coal mining concern in Illinois. No pictures, just twelve to twenty pages covering what the CEO had to say about the company in 1964 or 1957 or 1979. (So not a lot of scandal or argument, either, and a lot of why MY Dad’s Company is a shining example of What Makes America Strong.)

The Newberry has a bunch of these (along with an index compiled in 1971) but surely you want your own collection of these little pieces of American business. YOU might even read them some day.

Add new comment