A piece of NBC history, stuck between the pages…

Leafing through a copy of Looking Ahead – The Papers of David Sarnoff that I found at a used bookstore a while back, I came across this letter, dated March 28, 1968.

The contents of the letter are pretty banal: after welcoming the recipient to the annual meeting of NBC’s affiliates, it goes on to explain why the network is swagging him out with the collected writings of The General as opposed to some nice peacock cuff links or a new RCA transistor radio. Then again, it’s exactly this type of ordinary corporate communication that captivates me the most. Whenever I visit the archives of RCA or NBC or any other corporation, I always spend way more time than I should pouring over the social notes exchanged between executives, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with the subjects I’m researching. Invitations for tennis or sailing or birthday parties, RSVPs and thank-you notes, and in rare cases office or industry gossip, all typed (and duped on carbon) by secretaries, elaborately signed with expensive fountain pens, and then filed for posterity in thick hanging folders. The tactility of these communiques is striking, especially when considered in relation to the ephemerality of emails and text messages. But even more compelling to me is the way that these artifacts document the corporate cultures and social networks of fifty years ago. The pet names and the affectionate salutations and the handwritten postscripts containing inscrutable references to inside jokes offer glimpses into the structure and organization of corporations’ executive branches, but also into the ways that male executives (and the notes I come across are almost exclusively exchanges between men) socialized and interacted with one another. The Mad Men comparisons are obvious – imagine the salacious details we’d learn about the secretarial pool’s newest member or Freddy Rumsen’s last bender from reading carbons of the notes exchanged between Don Draper and Roger Sterling. That said, I’m still working out how exactly to use these artifacts and the insights they stand to provide us in my own research.

Special bonus content: this is the back flap of the envelope that the letter was contained within. I would live in this envelope if it was physically possible.

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About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

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