How Old Is Your Company? Are You Sure?

Photo by Drama Book Shop, which will keep its "Since 1917" tagline even though 1916 may be the founding year

Amusing piece in The New York Times: New York City’s Drama Book Shop thought it was 100 years old until it did some research. So much for its “Since 1917” tagline! Any corporate historian has similar stories to tell. If you’re asking “How old is my company?”, here are four ways to research and check. TIPS: 1) Use a business genealogist; more about that in our case study below. 2) Doublecheck all secondary sources and passed-down stories. Legend has it that the Drama Book Shop started as lobby stand in the ANTA Theater, which was founded in 1925, not 1917. Meanwhile, at least one reference in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said the store opened in 1916. A day of research into various sources at the New York Public Library would go a long way toward clearing up these questions. 3) Determine whether your start date is tagged to an “official” event (such as the date of incorporation, researchable online in state records) or the actual year when the business began. It’s easier when companies are incorporated, but companies often take years to get to that point. 4) Decide whether predecessor companies are included in the founding.

Bottom line: Pinpointing the founding date is often an arbitrary judgment call, especially for oldies.

CASE STUDY: When first researched the history of the A.W. Hastings Company, “Established 1854” was the tagline. Our client wanted to know more about the founding family, so we had a genealogist do research from two angles: the usual personal ancestry approach, and a deep dive into Boston company directories to research the business side. (Company directories were the Internet of their times, or more like the Yellow Pages before phones were invented. They can be found in historical societies and major city libraries.) Surprise! The company started in 1846 under another name. Albert W. Hastings, the company’s namesake, was actually a stepson of the founding Boles family. He renamed the business after himself because he saved it from near-demise. Because the business directories named the items sold by the company, we pinpointed the founding date as the year the company stopped building houses and started making windows. (Hastings is still a window-and-door company, but it’s now a distributor and partner rather than a manufacturer.)

What’s cool about business genealogy is that it turns up early themes; for example, fathers, sons, brothers and blended families echo throughout Hastings company history. It turns up memorable tidbits, too: We finally learned that the middle initial stands for Woodman, perfect karma for a window company. And as I wrote in the book’s first chapter, mysteries make for good stories: “Picking up eight years in age is mere curiosity. What’s more interesting is figuring out what happened in those missing eight years.”