Historian for Hire: A conversation with Phil Cantelon

Scholar entrepreneur Phil Cantelon has discovered that it is possible to make research and writing pay. In 1980, he and three collegues hung a shingle for their services as historians, building a business whose clients would eventually range from the United States government to a Las Vegas museum devoted to organized crime.

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole: When people think about historians, they usually think of academic historians, or maybe they think of independent historians or people who write history books for a popular audience. But they don’t think about someone doing what you do. So, tell us, What do you do?

PHIL CANTELON: I started a business that offers historians for hire. That’s a short way of saying we provide professional historical and archival services for a broad range of corporate, governmental, and private clients. The idea came out of the job crunch of the mid-1970s when professional historical organizations were struggling to find ways to recycle—it’s the only word that comes to mind—recycle unemployed historians in an attempt to provide jobs for graduate students and, not coincidentally, to preserve the jobs of history professors.

It was a tough time. New York City’s near-bankruptcy, for example, put hundreds of historians in the city university system out of work. One response was to retool historians to work in the business world. The concept that historical perspective would be valuable to corporations was a good one. But most of the historians were reluctant to make a commitment to the business world, which, at the same time, was uncertain about how to use historians.

My personal response was to try something else outside of the classroom. I still had a teaching job, but it seemed pretty obvious that tenure was not in my future. So I took advantage of a federal program called the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, which set up an exchange between universities, colleges, and federal agencies. I came to Washington in the summer of 1974 to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a year.

COLE: Was that in response to the job crunch?

CANTELON: Yes, my coming to Washington was, though the IPA program had existed for some time. I’m not aware that historians had taken advantage of it, however.

I came down to work at HUD in the Office of Policy Development and Research, where the deputy assistant secretary was a historian. We had three or four historians in that office, and I was much taken by that.

COLE: What were you doing before that?

CANTELON: I was teaching recent American history at Williams College. So I took a year off from Williams to come to Washington, starting out in the Nixon administration. When the president resigned in August, the Ford administration came in and I finished out the year writing speeches for the Secretary of HUD, Carla Hills. I drafted a new policy change into one of her speeches and she adopted it. That was the first time, and only time, I ever set a national policy.

COLE: Then did you go back to Williams?

CANTELON: Yes, I went back, and the job crisis was in full swing. But I realized something: that no member of my department at Williams had ever spent any significant time outside the classroom. From first grade on, they were always in school as students, then teachers. This was in the sixties and seventies, when students were calling the study of history irrelevant. And yet, here I’d come out of HUD, where I’d been paid to write a paper on whether owning a single-family house had always been the American Dream.

COLE: Has it always been the American Dream?

CANTELON: For most Americans, no. We looked at it as a suburban phenomenon. People thought so in the nineteenth century, when land was cheap, but once land was no longer cheap, once the frontier closed, then the dream took a new form. Owning your own home in the city became part of the myth. I suspect owning your own home did not become the goal or the dream until after World War II when prosperity, mass-produced housing, and federal mortgage money through the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration made home ownership available to larger numbers of Americans than ever before....

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