Documenting the History of American Express as an Internal Historian

Documenting the History of American Express as an Internal Historian

(AP Illustration/Jenni Sohn)
(AP illustration/Jenni Sohn)AP Illustration/Jenni Sohn/AP

NEW YORK (AP) — Ira Galtman is part of a small community of corporate archivists. They are historians, catalogers and documentalists for large companies. They track how companies change their products over time, while also looking for ways the company can reach back into its history.

For nearly three decades, Galtman has documented how American Express grew from a packing, shipping and express stagecoach company in New York in 1850, to the inventor of the traveler’s check in the 1890s, to the credit card company it is today. He is also popular on TikTok, where cardholders regularly ask him for AmEx facts.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Q: How did you get started in this role?

A: I loved history from an early age. I studied history in college, went to graduate school at NYU to first get a PhD in history, and I pivoted while in graduate school. I decided not to follow an academic route, but to enter the archive world. And I was fortunate that there was a records management program at NYU. So I was able to get a certificate for that as part of my graduate work.

I have been working at American Express for over 28 years now. I had the opportunity to start in the late 90s, so it was a time of transition. I am both an archivist and a historian of the company. And so each of these roles is slightly different, but they certainly complement each other.

Q: What interesting project have you been working on?

A: We did a project showing the role of American Express in the Civil War, which was very interesting. We shipped materials to Union soldiers in the field and were able to support the U.S. government. We also mailed out election ballots for the 1864 election.

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But during Covid we did look at how the company was doing during other crises to help inspire colleagues. For example, in 1918 there was a pandemic. But there have also been other times when the company has faced all kinds of crises, whether wars or recessions. I think bringing those areas to life was something that really inspired people.

Question: Where do you get most of your materials from?

A: I am fortunate that there are avid pony express collectors and some of them will contact me directly and offer me stuff. I get a lot of free stuff but I have also bought multiple items from the same person.

I would like to find an American Express car. That is probably the holy grail for our express archives.

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Q: What is worth keeping and what do you throw away?

A: The reality is that archivists keep a very small amount of material, because what is generated in an average year is just too much. And you have to have a documentation strategy and know what is important to keep, and what can connect the dots.

The single most important thing I do for Amex, in terms of why history is important, is to be able to show that there were precursors to a business. We started with the money order in the 1880s, which became the traveler’s check. Our Centurion Lounges go back to when we had lounges in Europe for customers who had to ship items overseas.

Q: So, who is CF Frost? He’s the name in all your ads.

It stands for Charles F. Frost. He was an account manager at Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising agency that American Express had been using since the mid-1960s. Frost was working on the American Express account and he needed to use a sample name. In the past, we’ve used John Smith, which is pretty typical. We made an agreement with him that we would use his name on sample cards in our ads.

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In 1977, his name on the menu was changed to CF Frost. We were looking for something gender neutral on the menu and in the early to mid 70s we started offering the menu to more women to diversify our customer base.