What records were created?
Some clues to what records might have been created can be found by looking at modern-day requirements for starting a business, then researching when that requirement was made into law. Some examples: small businesses are usually required to have a business license, to publish notices to establish their name/DBA (Doing Business As), and to pay taxes.
What jurisdictions created the records?
One of the important steps that genealogists often miss is to check all jurisdictions when searching for records. It helps to think about what level of government might have required records to be created -- that can be a clue to the location of any surviving records.
For example: The US National Archives generally has records created by the Federal Government on topics that have national significance. They might have copies of records that were created on a local level that were forwarded to the Federal Government (such as Naturalization records).
State Archives are likely to have copies of local records, if the smaller locality was required to submit copies to the State.
If neither of those two things are true, then the records may be held only at the county or town level, and there may not be copies held online.
What repositories hold records that were created and used 'in house'?
You might have a budget for your household that you use in keeping track of your own personal expenses. No one requires you to submit this as part of your taxes unless you are audited, so what happens to those records? Many are discarded, but if they are kept, they are likely to be part of your personal papers. The same thing is true for small businesses -- so ledgers and other records of that kind are likely to be in manuscript collections. If donated, those could be in any number of places at the local level -- local archives, historical societies, genealogical societies, local libraries, college or university libraries -- or at state levels, if they were collected by a project with a wider interest in small businesses.
What outward-facing materials did the business produce?
One of the most interesting and fun things to do is to look for the materials businesses produced as promotional material -- artifacts made not because government required them to, but because they needed to reach customers. Ads can be found in newspapers and trade directories -- giveaway items can sometimes be found via eBay and other auction sites.
Trade directories (the historical equivalent of the "yellow pages" in the late-20th century telephone directory) and newspapers are a good starting point for establishing a timeline for the business -- issuance of business licenses, notices of the business being sold to other owners, news items that say a business is moving, etc. An ancestor's business may also appear in crime reports, if there was trouble in the neighborhood.
If you are very lucky, you might have a 'lucky dip' in the social news, like the news item about my husband's great-grandfather, who was reported to have left his business unlocked overnight (no loss or damages resulted) -- or a write-up of a dispute over the ownership of the business during the probate process, which leads to court records.
Finding Aids and Resources
Temporary holding spot for links about searching newspapers:
- Kenneth Marks' site The Ancestor Hunt, Newspapers!: "1000's of free links, some tips, about 50 tutorials, and lots of other information and resources to guide and help you. And it is all about newspapers." Marks' tips on how to vary your search terms to get around problems with OCR are excellent: 8 Ways to Overcome OCR Errors when Searching Newspapers (posted 3 Sep 2013).
- "Lost in Transcription" by Steve at Atcherley.org.uk, published 13 March 2011 has more good tips about how OCR and transcription errors can affect the search process.
- "When the Digital Age Hinders", posted 27 Sep 2015 on Parallax View by our own ACProctor.