Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington

A review of the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware, United States of America.

While very well-known in the field of business history, the archives of the Hagley Museum and Library (200 Hagley Creek Road, Wilmington, Delaware 19807, USA) are often overlooked in other fields even though its materials are relevant to a wide swath of American history and culture. Housing the largest collection of American business company records in the world, the archives are located on the site of the original nineteenth-century DuPont gun powder mill, in a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. The archive got its start as the official DuPont Company museum before expanding its collection and broadening to its present-day focus on all American enterprise and history of industry and technology. It is most likely because of this auspicious connection to the DuPont Company and family legacy that the facilities are very well-maintained and the archive’s acquisition budget and support for visiting researchers is quite enviable. I spent a very pleasant month in residence at the archives there in the summer of 2012, looking at materials to help turn my dissertation into a book on the history of U.S. food labels and the role of companies, federal regulators, and diet scientists in reshaping how we eat and think about our food.

[Ed. note: This review is written by Xaq Frohlich. For Andrew Ruis’ review of Xaq’s dissertation, Accounting for Taste: Regulating Food Labeling in the “Affluent Society”, 1945-1995 (MIT 2011), please click here. We wish to thank the staff at the Hagley Museum and Library for acknowledging us on their website.]

Most researchers come to the Hagley to look for materials directly related to a particular American business or trade association. According to one of the archivists I spoke with during my stay, the three most utilized records are the official (and massive) records of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the DuPont Company and family records, and the Ernest Dichter Papers. This last one, in particular, fascinated me. Ernest Dichter (1907-1991) was a psychoanalyst turn advertising consultant in the 1950s. (He could be a character straight out of the television series Mad Men.) The Dichter files are capturing a lot of attention right now among those interested in consumer and advertising history, because he kept detailed records of consumer study research conducted for a variety of American companies in the 1940s through 1980s. They offer fascinating insight into the way companies thought about their consumers and how marketing shaped product design.

However, real opportunity lies in potential non-obvious discoveries one can make in the Hagley’s other collection materials. For example, I visited Hagley having been tipped off about its Litchfield Collection on the History of Fatty Materials, an excellent trove of food-related materials assembled by a private collector who was himself an edible oils engineer. The Litchfield Collection had a wide assortment of materials, ranging from old, out-of-print books to advertising pamphlets (listed as “PAM” in the library catalog), and on topics ranging from public advertising and popular culture to margarine and vegetable oils trade and technology. Roger Horowitz, the current director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Socety at Hagley, who is himself a food business historian, has helped ensure that the library has substantial food and consumer related materials. While perusing the Library finding aids during my visit, I was given the impression that one could find materials on a wide variety of topics. This is an archive that especially rewards the researcher who does not go in with blinders on, but looks around (and also consults with the staff about his or her topic and broader research interests).

Hagley catalog and collection finding aids

The only difficult challenge in using the Hagley research facilities is finding it the first time. The Hagley grounds, located on private museum parklands, are targeted to a steady stream of public visitors directed to the Museum building, which is located next to the Brandywine Creek that used to power the factory mills. While I highly recommend all researchers include at least one extra day on their itinerary for a tour of the museum, the du Pont family estate, and old gunpowder mill grounds, researchers will spend the bulk of their time on the other side of the estate, at either the Library, for the book and pamphlet collections, or the “Soda House” for the archival records collections. Once you find them, it is not difficult to return, but many Hagley visitors have a “first-time” story about how they got lost driving around the facilities and ended up in the surrounding residential neighborhood.

A real virtue of the Hagley archives is the ease of access. The archival staff is highly competent, the records well-organized, and the orientation very brief for first-time visitors; though it is still a good idea to contact them in advance by email or phone so that they can have the records vetted and prepared for you and waiting at the Soda House. I found the library and archive staff very friendly and quite helpful. They take pride in their work and their archives. The online catalog and finding aids will provide you a solid introduction to most of the materials, but depending on the collection you may need to work closely with the archivists in order to gain a folder-level understanding of what they hold. Standard archive rules apply: it opens 8:30 am-4:30 pm weekdays (as well as one Saturday a month), and is closed on national holidays; you are only allowed six boxes at a time, though no limit on the number per day; and they allow photographing and digital reproduction.

The Hagley Museum aspires to be more than simply a research archive, organizing a variety of professional and non-professional community-building events and activities. It regularly host workshops and seminar series on topics related to the history of American business and technology. It is a good place to meet and network with other scholars working on wide variety of topics in history. As the “place where the DuPont story begins,” the Hagley also plays an important role in the local community, hosting open museum events such as ice cream day and ride-your-bike-through-the-museum-grounds day. (When I was staying there I had the unexpected pleasure of being able to attend a live-music performance by a Civil-War-era-stye band playing banjo music on the museum grounds after hours.)

It is perhaps also worth mentioning that, in addition to being a treasure-trove for researchers interested in any topic upon which business interests might impinge, which in American history would be most topics, the site of the Hagley Library and Museum is itself an incredibly serene and pleasant place to visit. Hagley has visiting research grants for junior scholars, targeted specifically to dissertation researchers, which provide for extended visits, ranging from one week exploratory visits to 6-month in-residence stays. There is affordable, on-site housing (yes, on the museum park grounds!) for visiting scholars. When the weather is nice, you can enjoy the museum grounds on your lunch break and picnic outside. For scholars who stay on-site overnight, I cannot more highly recommend taking a jog early in the morning before the museum opens, or a stroll along the creek in the evening after hours. I saw groundhogs, a bald eagle, a beaver, a fox, among other incredible nature sights. (The staff laughed at my daily excitement about all the nature encountered on the Hagley estate grounds.)

Of course, this isolation from the nearby city also means that the visiting scholar eager to maximize his or her hours in the archive should either bring a lunch or afford themselves of the food from the Belin House Organic Café. Again, the staff is quite accommodating, and will have the café order delivered directly to you at the Library or Museum if you put the order in by 11:00 am.

Xaq Frohlich PhD
Science, Technology & Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
frohlich@alum.mit.edu

 

Image: Photograph of the “Soda House” by Xaq Frohlich.

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