When private and public meet in a corporate archive

By Amanda Wick
Project Archivist for the Carlson Companies Corporate Records and Family Papers

Portrait of Curt Carlson in front of Carlson Companies headquarters, circa 1995.
Curtis L. Carlson, circa 1995

In late 2014, Carlson Companies and the Curtis L. Carlson Foundation donated the corporate records and personal papers of company founder Curtis L. Carlson and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Carlson’s daughter who succeeded him as Chairman and CEO, to the University of Minnesota.

Carlson Companies is a highly diversified private company with significant interests in the hospitality and travel industries. Its origins lie in the Gold Bond Stamp Company, founded in 1938 by Curtis L. (Curt) Carlson. Over the course of its history, Carlson has focused on a range of business interests that include restaurants, marketing services, catalog printing, gift and promotional fulfillment, executive education, corporate and leisure travel, and, of course, hotel management. The recent sale of the Radisson hotel chain is an example of how Carlson continuously adapts to new economic circumstances.

Crewel worked Gold Bond Stamp Company Creed produced by wife of early Gold Bond Stamp Company executive – “The Progress of this Company will begin and end in the hearts and minds of the men in this room.”
Gold Bond Stamp Company Creed, circa 1940

The unique archival collection offers insight into the company’s exponential growth. Corporate records cover the founding of the Gold Bond Stamp Company and its process of organic growth in incentive marketing, coupons and gifts, and catalogs. Records also show the long-term strategic planning process and decision-making behind mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures that fueled the company’s growth into the global hospitality and travel giant that it is today.

These types of records are significant as private companies are not obligated to share them, and, as a result, the vast majority of corporate archives are closed to public researchers. 

Photograph of Curt Carlson and Gold Bond Stamp Company Mascot, Sandy Saver, at groundbreaking ceremony for Minneapolis Industrial Park.
Curt Carlson and “Sandy Saver” at MIP Groundbreaking, circa 1960

In addition to the valuable corporate records, the personal papers of both Curtis L. Carlson and Marilyn Carlson Nelson are included within the collection. These materials complement the corporate records as they reveal the inner workings of a family-owned business, as well as their personal notes, correspondence, and family artifacts. Curt Carlson’s papers, in particular, represent the story of a man achieving the quintessential American dream. Carlson Companies was built on the foundation of a small loan and powered by the personality and entrepreneurship of Curt Carlson. He cared deeply about his legacy and many of his papers focus on his planning for second and third generation ownership of the business he built. 

Family portrait from “Curt and Arleen” Scrapbooks Volume 1 of 14.
Early Carlson Family Photo, 1965

Curt Carlson’s papers are also indicative of the fine line between work and family. Intermingling of his personal papers with corporate records is common and proves to be an ongoing challenge during processing. Determining where “personal” ends and “corporate” begins within the collection is a difficult task. For example, many of his family trips involved work visits and networking events. His daughters and grandchildren were brought into Family Meetings (pre-Board of Directors meetings) early and were sent company financial reports beginning at ages 16-18.

To further complicate the division between personal and corporate, many letters and memos to family members are on company stationery – even his personal stationery notes the company’s address as opposed to his home address.

If the things we keep and how we organize them are a reflection of who we are as individuals, then Curt Carlson suffered no illusions about his personae as a businessman, public figure, and family patriarch. Every aspect of his life, including family scrapbooks, numerous awards, speeches, personal corporate memos, and documentation of his life as a public figure are represented within the collection. He was passionate about documenting his own history and genealogy, and was conscious about safeguarding the legacy of Carlson Companies and its subsidiaries, including the archives of acquired businesses.

Original photograph and later mock-up of early print ads for Ask Mr. Foster’s (AMF) Travel Agency’s centennial celebration. AMF was purchased by the Carlson Companies as part of an acquisition of First Travel Corp. in 1979.
Early Advertising for Ask Mr. Foster’s Travel Agency, circa 1920-1990

Processing of the Carlson Company Corporate Records and Family papers is ongoing and updates to a finding aid will be made periodically as team members finalize inventories of sections of the collection. Keep an eye out for further updates from the team!

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