Search where?

Stock Naked:
Uncovering a Company History
Image of a naked man in a barrel
by Nell Ingalls, February 1999; revised November 2002

Is my old stock from the Money Back Oil Company worth anything?

Whatever happened to the _____ company in ______ ? My parents worked there for years.

The question of company history usually arises when patrons find old stock certificates or bonds among their own or their relatives' papers, sometimes when settling an estate. There are other reasons to ask, though. Patrons may be curious to know what happened to a company in their old neighborhood or home town, or family historians may be interested in a company at which a forebear spent her or his working life. Those who are interested in company history, whatever their purpose, would consult the same sources.

Things to Know
Unincorporated Businesses
Where to Start
Corporate Records
Fee-Based Services
Your Strategy
For Further Information

Things to Know
First try to verify the company name, because names that sound distinctive now may have been common in years past. Also, try to determine whether the company was incorporated and in which state, when it existed, and where its offices were located. If you have a stock certificate, it will provide quite a bit of this information, and sometimes more.

Before we get started, a little background to explain the reasons for searching where we do.

If you have a stock certificate, that means that the company has been incorporated. What does incorporation mean?

Corporations are created under state law to protect business owners from personal liability when conducting business. Certain records are kept by the state under whose laws the company was incorporated, making that a prime place to search for company information.

Be aware that the state of incorporation and the location of the company need not be the same. Note also that words in the company name such as "Corporation" or "Incorporated," or abbreviations such as "Corp." or "Inc.," indicate but don't guarantee that a company is incorporated. Likewise, the absence of these words doesn't guarantee that a company is not incorporated.

Even when a company has incorporated, it doesn't imply that much—or any—information will be readily available, or even that a company is public. Private or closely held companies do not sell their stock to the public. Unlisted companies can sell their stock to the public but are not listed on stock exchanges. To the frustration of librarians and patrons, most company information that's published covers the disproportionately small number of companies whose stock is traded on one of the major stock exchanges; details about unlisted and private companies often are hard to come by.

Unincorporated Businesses
A company need not be incorporated in order to conduct business. It may have been organized as a sole proprietorship (one owner) or a partnership. By definition, such businesses do not have stock.

Under Illinois law, unincorporated businesses that conduct business under a name other than the personal name of the owner(s) must register their business name in each county in which they conduct or transact business. This is to make sure that customers and creditors of the business can find out who stands behind the business. Other states have similar laws.

These company names go by the cloak-and-dagger moniker of assumed or fictitious business names. In Illinois, the county clerk registers assumed business names. In some states, the office that registers corporations also keeps fictitious or assumed business name records.1

If it looks like a stock certificate...it isn't necessarily one. A close reading can distinguish stock certificates from other kinds of documents that resemble them, such as "a voluntary joint stock association unincorporated" and various kinds of trusts. Some of the same search strategies may work, however, especially for bonds. If SLS Reference serves your library, please feel free to send us a question and we'll find out what we can, based on the information in the document. Be sure to include a copy.

Where to Start
Given a stock certificate or a company name, first consult current company directories and investment sources to determine whether the company still exists by the same name. Sources like the Directory of Corporate Affiliations and America's Corporate Families® are helpful because they list subsidiaries and divisions, some of which were freestanding companies that have been merged into larger entities. If a company has merged or has been acquired, contact the Investor Relations or Shareholder Services department of the successor company to ask whether shares may still be redeemed and, if so, what process must be followed.

Some companies outsource the functions of their shareholder services departments, such as keeping track of shareholders to notify them of meetings or send reports, or to transfer shares when stock is bought and sold. Businesses that do this are called stock transfer agents.

A stock certificate may identify a transfer agent. The Securities Transfer Association maintains a free Web database of its members, with contact information, searchable by the name of either the company or the transfer agent.

If they're available, search sources that cover corporate capital history: changes of name, mergers and acquisitions, reincorporation in a different state, liquidation or reorganization under the bankruptcy laws, or going private (when all outstanding stock is bought by a few people and shares are no longer sold to the public). These sources are:

  • the annual Directory of Obsolete Securities. Because editions are cumulative, older editions may contain helpful information.
  • Capital Adjustments and Capital Changes Reports
  • Moody's (now Mergent's) Manuals, for those companies large enough be included
  • the International Directory of Company Histories

If a company is fairly old, the "Fisher manuals" might help. This work compiles the results of several decades of research on old stock certificates by the company now known as R. M. Smythe. The set consists of 12 volumes on microfilm and 3 volumes in print. The entry for each company includes the date its stock was deemed worthless. The set covers all 50 states from the early 20th century into the 1980s.

Because the Fisher manuals are cumbersome and laborious to use, it helps to know the exact company name, the state of incorporation, and the date of the stock certificate before researching a company. SLS Reference Service owns the Fisher manuals and can search them for member and contracting libraries.

Corporate Records
Corporations are governed by state law, so if the state of incorporation is known, it can be a shortcut to call the state office where corporations must register. These records can show a change of name, a date of dissolution, or even that the company still exists.

Some states will answer queries about corporate status by phone without charge, although some have adopted 900 numbers, charge fees for research, or require a written request. Increasingly, states are making corporate records available through the Web. The National Association of Secretaries of State links to the office in each state for Business Registration and Filing Services.

When contacting state agencies for corporate status, make sure to ask (and note) the dates covered by the search. Sometimes thr records for inactive companies are separated from those for active ones and will be searched only upon request, sometimes written.

For Illinois corporations, call the office of the Illinois Secretary of State's Department of Business Services in Chicago, +1 (312) 793 3380, or in Springfield, +1 (217) 782 7880. Illinois records are separated into "active" and "history" databases, depending upon whether the corporation is currently in operation, so be sure the operator checks both. You can also search the Web at Corporation/LLC Search.

The lack of a record doesn't mean that the company no longer exists. It may have abandoned its charter in one state and reincorporated in another. Records are not cross-referenced among different states, so the original state of incorporation may not be able to tell you if a company has changed its domicile.

The introduction to the Directory of Obsolete Securities cautions that, since canceled corporate charters can be reinstated—though few are—it is wise to double check with state offices even if you find the company listed as defunct in other sources.

Some states include assumed or fictitious business names for unincorporated businesses in the same databases as their records for corporations. If you phone, ask, or if you search the Web, look for an explanation of which records are included.

If you are looking for a business that existed decades ago, try the sources you'd use to research family history: old city or telephone directories, local newspapers, city and county histories. This is especially true for unincorporated companies, which tend to be smaller, more local, and shorter-lived than corporations.

Fee-Based Services
If you can't determine what happened to a company using the sources discussed above, patrons may choose to have the stock of incorporated companies searched by a company that specializes in that kind of research. A representative of Stock Search International Inc. has stated that 85 to 90 percent of corporations leave no assets when their charters are dissolved, but the occasional old stock certificate or bond can net its owner thousands of dollars. R. M. Smythe's Stock and Bond Research gives examples of windfalls received by owners of apparently worthless stock certificates.

For names and addresses of stock search firms, see the current edition of Maloney's Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory or the Goldsheet Obsolete Securities Page. Your patrons may be interested to know that stock search firms charge substantial fees to search many of the same sources located in SLS libraries. However, these companies can search records in other places not accessible to SLS Reference Service, such as bankruptcy courts and state unclaimed property offices, and some have the benefit of their own records compiled over many years.

So the company went out of business leaving no shareholders' equity? Don't give up yet! Stock certificates that are worthless as securities may have some value as collectibles; Stock Search International has estimated that about 15 to 20 percent do. The hobby of collecting old commercial paper is called scripophily. Some scripophilists value old financial documents because of the people who signed them or owned them: for example, an 1881 Standard Oil Company stock signed by John D. Rockefeller, or an 1888 railroad stock issued to Oliver Wendell Holmes. Some collectors appreciate them because of an interest in history and others because of the design or quality of the engraving. For more information about the hobby of scripophily, visit About Scripophily from the International Bond and Share Society. Find collectors and dealers in Maloney's book and at Goldsheet's Scripophily Dealers and Organizations. Some have posted catalogs online.

Price guides for collectible stocks are listed in library catalogs under the heading STOCK CERTIFICATES, and they are often included in price guides for all kinds of paper collectibles, under the subject heading PRINTED EPHEMERA; see especially the subheading �COLLECTORS AND COLLECTING. Also try the keywords "paper collectibles." R.M. Smythe's Book Shop sells many specialized titles about scripophily. Remember, price guides report past sales; contact an expert or dealer for an idea of the current market and coming trends.

Your Strategy
Here's what librarians can do when asked about corporate stocks, bonds, and company history.

  • Ask the patron for a copy of the stock certificate. This will give the company's legal name and state (or territory, if prior to statehood, or Canadian province) of incorporation, distinguishing it from others with the same or similar names. The date on the stock certificate indicates when the company was active.

  • If the stock certificate shows a transfer agent and you can locate it, contact it.

  • Try business directories, city directories, and periodical indexes, both current ones and also those covering the time when the company was active. These sources may reveal that a company has been acquired by or has merged with another, has become a division or subsidiary of another company, or has changed its name. Tip: Don't forget phone directories and the Web.

  • Search sources that report corporate capital events, obsolete securities, or company history: the Directory of Obsolete Securities, Capital Adjustments, Capital Changes, the Fisher manuals, or the International Directory of Company Histories.

  • If you discover that a company has merged into or been acquired by a company that currently exists, contact the successor company's investor relations or shareholder services department about redeeming the stock.

  • Contact the state's corporate records office by phone, mail, or the Web. For unincorporated businesses, contact the appropriate county or state agency.

  • Give the patron contact information for a stock search firm.

  • Search price guides that cover collectible stock certificates. Give the patron contact information for an appraiser, collector, expert, or dealer in old commercial paper.

  • Librarians in libraries served by SLS Reference Service may send a reference request. Please include a copy of the stock certificate, front and back. If you fax it, it's a good idea to phone to make sure the fax is legible.

For Further Information
Here's a list of the sources mentioned above and some others of interest.

America's Corporate Families®. Dun & Bradstreet, annual.
Directory of Corporate Affiliations. "Who Owns Whom." New Providence, NJ: National Register Publishing, annual.
Securities Transfer Association
Capital Adjustments. Prentice Hall, o.p.
Capital Changes Reports. Chicago: CCH Incorporated.
+1 (800) TELL CCH or +1 (847) 267-7000
Directory of Obsolete Securities. Jersey City, NJ: Financial Information Inc. Annual.
International Directory of Company Histories. Chicago: St. James Press, 1988� .
Fisher Manuals. R. M. Smythe.
This 15-volume set has been published under several titles: volumes 1 to 4 as the Marvyn Scudder Manual of Extinct or Obsolete Companies, volume 5 as the Robert D. Fisher Manual of Extinct or Obsolete Companies, and volumes 6 to 15 as the Robert D. Fisher Manual of Valuable and Worthless Securities.

Volumes 1 to 12, on microfilm, are o.p. Copies of volumes 13 (1971), 14 (1975), and 15 (1984) may be available. Contact R.M. Smythe. When I last spoke to a representative, the company had no plans to reissue the Fisher Manuals in any form.
Goldsheet Obsolete Securities Page
A personal page with citations and links to publications, state and Canadian province corporate records registries, collectors, dealers, and organizations.
Mining Stock Certificates
The Nevada Commission on Mineral Resources, Division of Minerals, lists Lists special sources to identify mining companies inside and outside the state.
National Association of Secretaries of State
Illinois Compiled Statutes
Assumed Business Name Act, 405 ILCS 0.01 to 405/6.
Corporate names, see 805 ILCS 5/4.05 to 5/4.25.
Illinois Secretary of State. Department of Business Services

Corporation/LLC Search
About Scripophily
From the International Bond and Share Society, a membership organization.
Maloney's Antiques & Collectibles Resource Directory. David J. Maloney, Jr. Biennial. Radnor, PA: Wallace-Homestead.
National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators
Stocks constitute a kind of unclaimed property. For background, see " Getting Yours: Unclaimed Property," by Nell Ingalls, Points of Reference no. 231 (September-October 1998).
Old Stock Certificates
A site from Equity Analytics, Ltd. containing general information about investment topics, including old stock certificates.
Smythe Online
Stock Search International Inc.
+1 (800) 537 4523

1 For more information about assumed business names, see Naming Your (Business) Baby: Selecting, Reserving, and Protecting Business Names.

Nell Ingalls, formerly a Research Librarian at SLS Reference Services, is the Assistant Head of Reference Services at the Hinsdale (Illinois) Public Library.


Jolene Carlson

Reviewed: November 15, 2002 .

Copyright: 1997-2002
Suburban Library System







About Us

What's New


Staff Directory










DIL Manual


Internet Toolkit