"History is a source of strength" in today's economy...

The "Great Recession" has claimed many victims in its onslaught on the American economy, particularly in the world of archives and public history. Many state archives have reduced hours of operation due to budget cuts in state governments. In the past year, the Department of Education announced plans to defund the Teaching American History (TAH) Grants in the next fiscal year, and Congress recommended a 90 percent budget cut to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Federal funding agency that assists with records management, archives, and documentary editing projects.

The outlook for the future of public history is even more bleak when you consider that the "Nation's Report Card" recently revealed that proficiency in U.S. History among students grades K-12 showed little improvement in the last five years. Most fourth graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and only 19 percent of those students could could say when Columbus sailed, Jamestown was founded, the Constitution was written, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. In the current economic climate, many people are even questioning the value of a liberal arts degree. "What are you going to do with a history degree?" is a question that many young people in my chosen profession are often asked when confronted with the economic realities of today.

But maybe there is a silver lining in this dark cloud of economic uncertainty. I believe that the "Great Recession" has made nostalgia a marketable enterprise, and archivists and public historians are keenly positioned to take advantage of this economic opportunity as a primary source of information for entrepreneurs looking for a nostalgic marketing hook. People are no longer concerned with "keeping up with the Joneses" and are looking to once again capture a more simple time in their lives, when people and personal relationships mattered, and stories of things past were interwoven into the fabric of what we make and what we do.

I believe that the market for nostalgia is growing, due largely to an aging "Baby Boomer" population and, lately, to a poor economy and generally trying times. It's comforting to remember "the good old days," and certain segments of the economy have recognized this. Evidence can be found in television shows such as "American Pickers," "Who Do You Think You Are?," and "Antiques Road Show," which have tapped into this desire for all things nostalgic with a measure of success in the ratings.

You can also find evidence of nostalgia in the goods and services that companies sell to their customers. In order to convey a message of stability and confidence during turbulent economic times, companies are advertising their products in ways that use history as a marketing hook. One example of this type of corporate marketing strategy can be found in recent commercials by the auto industry. Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge, in particular, are heavily invested in the past. Consider this commercial for the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee...

The auto industry isn't the only business that has embraced the past. Consider these successful marketing efforts:

  • Ebbets Field Flannels, a Seattle-based company, manufactures vintage athletic clothing based on designs worn in the early 20th century.
  • Tennessee-based Colonel Littleton creates hand-made leather goods and apparel, with an emphasis on tradition and heirloom quality products.
  • Retro Campaigns, Inc. is a small, Los Angeles-based company that prints T-shirts recalling memorable characters and moments from American political history.
  • In April 2011, Duck Head Apparel revived its brand and embraced its Nashville origins with a new advertising campaign and marketing strategy that emphasizes quality, durability and tradition.
  • Thomas Adams opened the world's first chewing gum factory, and soon afterward, in February 1871, Adams New York Gum went on sale in drug stores for a penny a piece. Today, you can find displays of Adams Company "Nostalgia Chewing Gum" in pharmacies and retail stores featuring traditional brands such as Beemans, Clove, and Black Jack.
  • In the 19th century, soda fountains became a popular alternative to the saloon, and were present in almost every American city, but by the 20th century, industrial soft drink companies found cheaper ways to package and produce soda for the masses, spelling the demise of the traditional drug store soda fountain. These traditional drinks, however, are making a comeback, and soda shops throughout the country are becoming trendy once again. NPR recently reported on this renaissance in an article entitled, "In Soda Revival, Fizzy Taste Bubbles Up From The Past," highlighting one such enterprise right here in Nashville. I located another in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to the NPR article, these new soda shop ventures are "reviving all sorts of forgotten tastes from early American history -- and re-creating the feel of the old-timey soda fountain too."
  • As Kraft Foods celebrates the Oreo Cookie's 100th anniversary, The New York Times points out that consumers are seeking authenticity in the products that they buy, and so-called "heritage brands" like the Oreo Cookie reflect that trend. 
  • The Chattanooga Bakery, maker of the iconic Moon Pie since 1917, has recently rebranded its packaging to embrace the company's historic past to boost future sales.
  • The Historic Division of MARS was established in 2006 "to relentlessly pursue and share chocolate's rich past by creating authentically historic chocolate experiences that allow consumers to enjoy the fusion of chocolate history and MARS chocolate excellence."

Small businesses and corporate America are not the only segments of the economy looking to the past for a profit. Genealogy and personal history services are also big business. "Web 2.0" tools have expanded the market, making genealogy more visible and accessible to average people. Genealogy-based companies are looking for ways to tap into that market and are succeeding. In fact, genealogy has become a multi-million dollar industry. Genealogy social networking websites and services have received $28 million in venture capital funding since 2007. In November 2009, Ancestry became a publicly traded company, and by the end of 2011, Ancestry expects to have 1,700,000 to 1,725,000 subscribers, bringing in rev­enues of $370 — $375 mil­lion.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial has created another niche in the marketplace, with heritage tourism accounting for $192 billion in revenue. Americans who plan vacations to cultural and historic sites spend an average of $994 a trip. That is a third more than the average leisure traveler.

Having said all this, how can archivists and public historians survive in the current economic climate, particularly during a time in which our children -- the future workforce of America -- are ignorant of basic historical facts? Perhaps one thing we should do is start thinking about history as an enterprise with profit potential. An entrepreneurial spirit and a love for history do not have to be mutually exclusive interests. Libraries have already started to do this by thinking of new ways to generate money and re-branding themselves as crucial employment resources for people without computers and as community gathering places that cannot be easily replaced. Why shouldn't archivists and public historians think in these terms as well?

I have no illusions of becoming extraordinarily wealthy by pursuing archives and public history as my chosen profession, but I do believe in the words of author and historian David McCullough who said, "History is a source of strength." As archivists and public historians, we should take Mr. McCullough's words to heart and start flexing our muscles.

Article updated on 11/2/2012.

Gordon Belt
is the Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, and is the past president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. On The Posterity Project, Gordon blogs about archives, local history, social media advocacy for archives and cultural heritage organizations, and occasionally writes about the convergence of history and memory.