The Hunt for the Hidden Persuader: A Special Guest Blog by Regina Lee Blaszczyk
This blog post has been written by guest blogger Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Leadership Chair in the History of Business and Society at the University of Leeds in the UK. It relates to sources from American Consumer Culture, a digital resource published in 2014.
Back in 2006, I was hot on the trail of Ernest Dichterâ€™s report on â€śThe Peacock Revolution.â€ť The phrase, which fittingly described the flamboyant turn in menâ€™s apparel preference, has become part of the fashion lexicon even though its origins with Ernest Dichter are largely unacknowledged. Dichterâ€™s consulting business, the Institute for Motivational Research, wrote the report as part of the marketing effort for postwar chemical giant E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company.
I wanted to read â€śThe Peacock Revolutionâ€ť for my ongoing research on the DuPont Company, synthetic fibers, and American consumer culture, and I finally tracked down a copy at Ohio Wesleyan University in Dublin, Ohio. This effort got me wondering: what happened to the papers of the Institute for Motivational Research, the once well-known think tank that Ernest Dichter ran from a sprawling mansion on Croton-on-Hudson, New York?
Through a number of telephone calls and emails, I learned that Professor Daniel Horowitz of Smith College had looked at the Ernest Dichter papers at the Dichter family home in the Hudson River Valley some years back. I obtained a phone number and rang from my house in Philadelphia. I held my breath that the number would still be in service, and was thrilled when an elderly woman picked up the phone. It was the widow, Hedy Dichter, who was still living in the Dichter family home in Courtland Manor, just fifty miles north of New York City. I nearly jumped out of my chair when Hedy told me that her husbandâ€™s files were still intact, and that I was welcome to go through them for my research.
Figures from the 'Peacock Revolution' report
Making a holiday out of the trip, my husband Lee Oâ€™Neill and I drove from Philadelphia to the Hudson River Valley in September 2006. We landed on Hedy Dichterâ€™s doorstep on a Monday morning. The doorbell was answered by a spry ninety-something woman, who had kept fit through healthy eating and daily swims in the backyard pool. Hedy was enthusiastic about my interest in her husbandâ€™s career and Lee and I soon found ourselves in an office storeroom filled with filing cabinets and bookshelves containing correspondence and research reports.
The breadth and scope of the collection was astounding, and we soon connected the dots between the Dichter archive and the Hagley Museum and Library. Founded as a repository for the personal papers of the du Pont family and the corporate archives of the DuPont Company, Hagley, over the past four decades, has expanded its focus to include a range of topics related to American business history and consumer society. The Dichter papers seemed to be an ideal fit, and I ventured to suggest that Hedy talk with Hagley.
The suggestion, it turns out, made Hedyâ€™s day. For a number of years, she had been trying to find a research library to take the Ernest Dichter papers, but her search had been in vain. Special collections libraries with conventional interests were befuddled by the business archive, which did not neatly fit into the categories of history, literature, politics, or science. The research trip had been fruitful; after two days of snapping away in the storeroom, we left the Hudson River valley with thousands of research photographs on the camera and the promise to put Hedy in touch with Hagley.
Back in Wilmington, Hagley archivist Lynn Catanese immediately recognized the name Ernest Dichter, and was enthusiastic about seeing the collection. The papers were transferred to Hagley between 2007 and 2010, and the collection, which measures 215 linear feet, was opened to the public starting in late 2009. The digitalization of the major research reports by Adam Matthew is the final step in making important components of the collection accessible to students and scholars.
My hunt for the hidden persuader has paid off. A decade later, I teach the history of business and consumer society at the University of Leeds in the UK, where one of my research projects is a cultural biography of Ernest Dichter and transatlantic consumer culture. During the late 2000s, Hedy was kind enough to consent to a long interview on her life with Ernest, and over the past few years, I have been working with their son Thomas Dichter to learn about other aspects of the story. My book will use the life of Ernest Dichter as a lens to examine the role of business in postwar consumer society.
Researchers can play an important role in connecting the people who hold the archives with the libraries that serve as the repositories of historical materials. It is always good practice for researchers who stumble across material of scholarly merit to assist in preserving the historical record. Without the intervention of researchers, many collections end up in the rubbish bin or the auction block. So the next time you run across a hoard, please be in touch with your favorite archive to make it happen!