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Finding value in corporate history

Marketplace Staff Jan 1, 2010

Finding value in corporate history

Marketplace Staff Jan 1, 2010


TESS VIGELAND: Every year around this time we do two things in our family. Go through the house and throw away or donate everything we haven’t used or touched in the last two, three years. And rifle through files for old paperwork that can serve as kindling in the fireplace. Good for the soul and for the finances. ‘Course it’d be easier if I could just donate it all to the Tess Vigeland Museum. That’s how corporate America deals with its ephemera.

Cash Peters reports.

Cash Peters: Did you know, Toyota has a museum? Quite honestly, it’s a miracle they do. PR woman Cindy Knight.

Cindy Knight: We only started this, maybe, 10 years ago when we were celebrating our 40th anniversary in the United States. That’s when we started to look around in our closets and our garages and said, “Hey, what do we have that displays and tells our story?”

And what they had was almost nothing.

Knight: We had some vehicles housed in a dingy, nondescript warehouse and that was just about it.

That’s crazy. As you can imagine, there followed a lot of frantic hunting around, going to garage sales, emptying their closets, whatever they did. Until eventually — ta da!

Peters: So you have a museum then, I hear.

Susan Sanborn: Yes, welcome to the museum.

Peters: Well, thank you.

They built a museum. A warehouse in Torrance, Calif., filled with $11 million worth of beautifully preserved Celicas, Corollas and the disaster on four wheels, the Toyopet. Oh yes. Curator Susan Sanborn.

Sanborn: We actually started with the Toyopet, bringing it to America in 1957.

Peters: The Toyopet?

Sanborn: Yes, the Toyopet Crown.

Peters: Which I wouldn’t buy on the grounds that it sounds so awful. Who thought of that name?

Sanborn: It just was a shortened version of “Toyota’s pet.” We celebrate our failures as well. Our first car in America was a complete flop. It caused our company to go back to Japan, study what we did wrong.

Peters: Detach the horses and put an engine in it.

Sanborn: Yes. And then come back with something that we could actually sell to the American consumer.

You know who else has a great museum? Levi Strauss in San Francisco. Now, they were much better organized.

Lynn Downey on a Levi Strauss archive video: The Levi Strauss Company archive is a treasure house of garments…

That’s the historian Lynn Downey on a video and true, it’s really fascinating. The company began when a guy called Jacob Davis came up with the idea of putting metal rivets in the pockets of work pants and Levi Strauss, well I guess he quit writing waltzes for a while to market the things. Of course, if I pay more attention to the museum in San Francisco, I’d know this stuff.

Levi Strauss archive video: The company acquires historic garments from a number of different sources.

Downey: This is a pair of jeans that got too damaged to wear. So a guy left them behind in the mine, so somebody else could hack off some of the denim to patch another pair. When mines would become abandoned or collapsed, these changing rooms would become these little time capsules that these wacky guys in hazmat suits would break in and pull out the clothes and sell them to me.

Levi Strauss archive video: These garments that we have here all tell a story. They belong to somebody…

Downey: We have always known what we were doing, which is not to say we didn’t make a few missteps. We made polished cotton pants for men in 1958 in the exact colors of orange, lemon and lime Jell-0. OK, they weren’t really popular, but we knew what we were doing…

Peters: Where are those on the display?

Downey: Oh, they’re in the archives, tucked away where nobody can…

Peters: They’re in a plastic bag under your bed at home.

Downey laughs.

I love that laugh.

“Mr. Sandman” sung by the Chordettes: Mr. Sandman…

“Make me a dream.”

Like Toyota, the Levi’s collection also has holes in it, a. literally, it’s a bunch of torn jeans, but b. because they had a disaster.

Downey: We lost everything in 1906 in the big earthquake and fire.

Peters: Oh you did?

Downey: All of our corporate records, all of the patterns, all of the correspondence. Everything about the deal between Levi and Jacob went up in flames in 1906.

And they still managed to scrape a decent museum together. But it’s great that corporations are keeping track of their history.

Also, they’re all still looking for stuff. So if you happen to have an ancient pair of Levi’s tucked away in the trunk of your Toyopet, get in touch. There’s no hurry; Lynn will always be there.

Downey: My goal is to work in the archives till I’m 103, drop dead in the collections and haunt it for all eternity.

Peters: Basically, I would like to see you hung up from clips. I would like to see you just strung up by your shoulders. I’d pay to see that, actually.

There you go.

In San Francisco, Calif., I’m Cash Peters for Marketplace Money.

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