The Burns Library recently began an exciting new backlog processing project to make unprocessed, closed collections available. When you mention backlog processing to many archivists, they groan and cover their eyes – imagine having eighty years’ worth of homework you’ve been ignoring, and you have some idea of their psychic pain. But unprocessed collections are also like a treasure hunt – you never know what you’ll find! Unprocessed collections are often just “stuff in a box” that can’t be conveniently used by a researcher. There may be no order whatsoever, and often no index or any way of searching the collection to figure out exactly what it contains. We take these unorganized boxes o’ stuff and turn them into neatly labeled folders in archival boxes, open for research use, with easily accessible and searchable online finding aids. In addition to being the first people to unearth all of the great things in an unprocessed collection, we also get the immense satisfaction of knowing that now everyone can use the collections. We’ll have ongoing posts to let you know about all of the fascinating things we find during this project, so stay tuned . . .
One of the first collections to be processed was the John Donnelly & Sons records. John Donnelly & Sons, also known as the Donnelly Advertising Company, was an outdoor advertising company founded in Boston in 1850. From rather rough-and-tumble beginnings – several employees were arrested during the “Poster War” of 1898, which saw rival bill posting companies pasting over each other’s signs and occasionally resorting to fisticuffs – the company became one of the most prominent outdoor advertising companies on the east coast. One of their first customers was P. T. Barnum, promoting the first American performances of the famous opera singer Jenny Lind. Business grew in the 1870s due to increased theater and circus business, and in the 1890s the firm began to expand into neighboring towns. By 1900, they were so ubiquitous that an editorial cartoon pictured Edward C. Donnelly slapping a poster up on the moon!
In the 1930s John Donnelly & Sons branched out into neon and electric signs, and created some of the Boston area’s most recognizable advertising landmarks, including the Gillette Company sign and the Shell sign. The company experienced a Mad Men-like heyday during the booming economy of the 1950s, and many of the scrapbooks from this period show Edward C. Donnelly Jr. at glamorous Advertising Club events. Following Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act of 1965, however, increased local and national regulation of billboards led to the company’s gradual decline and dissolution in 1978.
The collection is composed in large part by a series of scrapbooks kept by the family. The scrapbooks date from 1893 to 1973 and contain newspaper clippings – sometimes accompanied by acerbic handwritten commentary – as well as photographs, correspondence, programs, and other printed ephemera. The collection also includes awards, a small number of business records, and family photographs. While the records obviously document the history of John Donnelly & Sons, as well as of the Donnelly family, there are a number of unexpected research uses for the collection. Because advertising is so endemic in modern society, the ads themselves often reflect the changing cultural moment. In 1968, the company ran billboards featuring a long-haired young man with the caption “Beautify America, Get A Haircut.” Originally an ad pitch for Gillette that the company declined, the billboards were run by Donnelly themselves as a “public service,” and the posters were sold for a small fee to companies nationwide.
A pamphlet published by Donnelly Advertising in the 1970s advocates outdoor advertising as an especially effective method of influencing the working woman, who no longer sits at home and watches television – instead she’s out, driving to work, and advertisers should “go where she goes – go outdoor!”
In the scrapbooks, editorials and cartoons about billboards depict them as urban marvels, as dangerous roadside distractions, as cheap entertainment, and as hideous, unlawful eyesores – a wide range of opinions mirroring society’s changing views about public space, consumerism, and advertising. In addition to straightforward business history, this collection offers source materials for local history, cultural history, and the history of graphic design. If you would like to learn more about the John Donnelly & Sons records, please see the finding aid online at http://hdl.handle.net/2345/2675. To use the records for research, please contact the Burns Library staff at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Adrienne Pruitt, Project Archivist, John J. Burns Library