The Roots of Aramark: The Automatic Merchandising Company

Monday, February 20, 2017

At the Hagley Library we collect the business records of thousands of different companies. The businesses run the gamut of being very large, still in operation, well-known companies to very small, defunct, and little known. It may come as no surprise that it can be difficult to find information about the history of many of these lesser well-known companies.

Part of my job is to research the company whose materials make up a collection and write a brief history about them. Good sources of information about a company often comes from the collection itself, other resources within the Hagley Library and, of course, credible resources you can find online.

Recently we acquired an album from the Automatic Merchandising Company. A small company that operated and installed vending machines in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. The album contained mostly photographs and one reprint of a newspaper article. From the album itself, I was able to determine the name of the company, where the business was located (both a branch and the headquarters), their key products, and the name of an executive associated with the company.

Bookplate found inside front cover of album.
Bookplate found inside front cover of album.

What I was not able to determine from the collection was when the business was established, by whom, and what happened to the company. Doing a Google search I was able to find a trade publication called “The Billboard: The Amusement Industry’s Leading Newsweekly” which contained several very brief articles about the company. The articles referred to a William Fishman as being Vice President of the company.

Fishman’s name also appeared in the article that was with the album, confirming that the company mentioned in the trade magazine was the same. There were plenty of other sources containing articles mentioning companies with similar or even the same name, but were not referring to the same company. Even though I was able to discover the names of the company president and the Detroit branch manager, it was Fishman’s name which continually appeared.

While researching William Fishman, I came across several articles about the company Aramark, a current leader in the food services industry; one from the Aramark website, one from Wikipedia, and one from Business Insurance, an online trade publication. All three articles mentioned the partnership between William Fishman and the Davidson Brothers to form what is today Aramark. William Fishman isn’t necessarily an uncommon name and I came across many articles and obituaries for various people by the same name. However, I was able to confirm these articles were about the correct William Fishman because they also mention the Automatic Merchandising Company.

Auto-Snak machine at the Budd Wheel Plant, circa 1955.
Auto-Snak machine at the Budd Wheel Plant, circa 1955.

Eventually I did find the correct William Fishman’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune. It was interesting to learn that Fishman had strong ties to Philadelphia and was quite engaged in civic leadership. In Philadelphia he was a trustee of the Committee for Economic Development, president of the Jewish Publication Society of America, chairman of the Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools, and was the first Jewish man in the Philadelphia area to have a Catholic school building named after him.  

What at first appeared to be an album for an unfamiliar company, turned out to be the precursor business to one of the largest companies providing food service, facilities and uniforms in America. I was able to learn this by following the trail of breadcrumbs from one piece of information to the next. Being able to make these connections is part of what makes the Hagley archives integral to the study of the history of American enterprise.

You can see the full finding aid online here for the Automatic Merchandising Company album.


Laurie Sather is a Audiovisual Archivist at the Hagley Museum and Library.