Bringing History On Demand Services to Digital Consumers

By Laura Starr, Engagement Strategist, and Jen Giambrone, Historian

While we don’t quite live in the futuristic world envisioned on the animated series The Jetsons—complete with jet packs, flying cars, and machines that can instantly produce any meal you want—today’s on-demand economy comes with many conveniences that Jane Jetson would appreciate. Source: The Jetsons via Northwestern University

A Historical Retrospective of On Demand Services

Need a ride? Groceries? Beer? A meal from your favorite restaurant? Want to read a new book, watch the latest trending show, or listen to a new album? Looking for a therapist, a doctor, or a fitness instructor? This year, as many people have stayed home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability to access goods and services with the click of a button has been more important than ever. And more companies—established brands and start-ups alike—are launching new websites and apps that bring their services and products directly to you.

The moment of inception for the on-demand economy is up for debate. Some date it to 2007, when Apple launched its first iPhone and with it the app marketplace. March 2009, when a passenger in San Francisco embarked on the first-ever Uber ride, marked another important milestone. Others look back further, to 2001, when Apple debuted iTunes, a media player that enabled users to purchase songs and albums with the click of a button—no trip to Best Buy or F.Y.E. required—or to August 1997, when a company called Netflix began shipping DVDs to mailboxes around the country (rest in peace, Blockbuster).

The Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog made its debut in 1886, offering everything from furniture and medical supplies to appliances and mail-order house assembly kits. The company, once a leader in innovation and convenience, declared bankruptcy in 2018. Source: Sears Roebuck & Company

Looking back further, however, you can see how the steady march toward greater convenience, speed, and at-home ease began much earlier than the 1990s or 2000s. As my colleague Scott Vierick noted in his blog about the history of the United States Postal Service, the USPS first introduced at-home delivery in the 1860s, bringing mail directly to homes in major cities to cut down on traffic at post offices. This service expanded throughout the rest of the 19th century until in 1900 it was implemented nationwide. And of course, the debut of the mail order catalog—first in 1845 with Tiffany’s Blue Book and then more broadly in 1872 with the first Montgomery Ward catalog—transformed the consumer experience, making it possible for Americans in all corners of the country to purchase goods that might otherwise only be available at department stores in cities.

A traveling vacuum cleaner salesman makes his pitch. Uber borrowed its independent contractor model from cleaning supply companies that saw tremendous success with door-to-door sales agents in the mid-1900s. Source: JSTOR Daily

In the early and mid-20th century, other goods found their way directly to American doorsteps, too—from bottles of fresh milk from the milkman to mops and vacuum cleaners peddled by door-to-door salesmen. Agents for Avon and the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company brought cases of products directly to their customers’ homes. Meanwhile, the dining experience began to evolve. My colleague Colleen Kim has explored the history of the Automat and takeout food in America, two innovations that made it easier for people to get their food on the fly. Drive-in and drive-thru restaurants began to proliferate in the 1950s and 1960s, with chains like In-N-Out and Jack in the Box allowing customers to order food without leaving their cars (McDonald’s followed suit in the 1970s).

How HAI Entered the On Demand Marketplace

So, it is in this spirit of innovation, ease, and convenience that we at HAI make our own foray into the world of on-demand services. Since 1981, HAI has provided historical, archival, and information services to clients around the world. Much of that work was done on-site at client locations and within research repositories. With more collections becoming accessible online in recent decades, our team pivoted their research and collections skills to digital environments as well. Then, somewhere around March 15, 2020, many companies—HAI included—found themselves snapped into a virtual, remote workplace overnight by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moments of difficult change often encourage innovation. We listened to the challenges of museums and cultural heritage institutions separated from their collections and visitors. We heard from corporations, agencies, and law firms downsizing office spaces and looking for solutions to digitize and provide access to their records. We witnessed educational and government teams building communities of practice to capture and preserve web content about the pandemic to serve as a future teaching tool and archival repository of this historical event. We collaborated with technology partners to offer lightweight, immediate solutions to provide access and engagement to organizations’ digital content.

Hungry for more shopping history? Check out the documentary HAI’s Laura Starr made with Gwynnie Bee.

We put on our thinking caps, rolled up our sleeves, and defined a set of historical service offerings that address today’s digital challenges. Our goal was to provide an immediate, online way to support the capture of our clients’ stories and to increase their digital engagement through unique historical content. Oral history interviews capture memories, record insights, and preserve institutional knowledge. Historical blog posts share meaningful, unique stories that will inspire and inform readers. Social media posts develop thoughtful historical content to drive engagement and expand your social platform audiences. All On-Demand services are offered from the safety of home. However, our team will work alongside our clients—as we always have, albeit now remotely—from preliminary project visioning to the implementation of that vision. We are thrilled to offer this On-Demand Services model to provide a direct buying experience driven by the consumer’s specific needs.

Visit our History Services On-Demand site to learn more, and keep checking back as we have exciting additions planned for 2021!

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