by Maggie Hoffman
“What do you know about the history of Converse?”
When Samuel Smallidge read the words on the questionnaire, he felt uniquely qualified to answer. Though he holds two Master’s degrees, it was knowledge recalled from a fifth grade history project that helped Smallidge land his current position as Archivist at Converse. As it turns out, Smallidge’s hometown of Lyme, New Hampshire was likewise home to Marquis Mills Converse, the very man who’d founded Converse Rubber Shoe Company back in 1908.
Within a week of penning his answer, Smallidge was offered a contract. On day one, he walked into the Converse storeroom—then located in North Andover, Massachusetts. “It was basically just a big empty room, and I’ve spent the last eight years just kind of filling it up with stuff,” he explains. Since his tenure began, Smallidge has tackled critical preservation concerns and seen the archives through a relocation from North Andover to Charlestown. He’s made hundreds of calculated (and very cool) acquisitions. He’s also made a name for himself. Four months after being hired on as a contractor, Smallidge successfully advocated for the creation of the full time archivist position he holds today.
Over the last decade, the billion dollar company has undergone a series of changes to its corporate structure. As a result, the archives’ position within the hierarchy has changed a few times since Smallidge assumed his role. For the past few years, the archives has settled into a position nested under Converse’s Design Department, a 40-person department responsible for footwear design. Smallidge considers the archives’ position within the corporate structure a significant benefit when it comes to internal advocacy. The Converse Headquarters’ relatively small size of approximately 500 employees also offers an advantage. Converse employees know who Smallidge is and what he has to offer. In fact, a tour of the archives is integrated into new employees’ training sessions.
Smallidge’s successful efforts at advocating for the archives put him in a position to hire additional help. Now, with added staff to process archival materials, he is able to focus his own efforts on telling the company’s stories. As Smallidge explains it, Converse relies heavily on its history. While occasional external reference inquiries come through his inbox, the bulk of his outreach is actually inreach. He serves as a link between the company’s trademarked past and its innovative future.
Employing thoughtful research, Smallidge ensures that the company’s history is accurately conveyed through presentations at product launches, even traveling as far Beijing to discuss how the brand has evolved over the years. He also curates permanent and rotating exhibits at the company’s Lovejoy Wharf headquarters building. A current installation aptly relies on the ten-story building’s elevator bays to illustrate how Converse’s logo has changed over the past century. When Smallidge designs these exhibits, he focuses on their reception by potential hires and other stakeholders.
In addition to creating exhibits, Smallidge helps Converse’s design and marketing teams preserve company history through their continued dedication to the brand’s memorable designs. As designers brainstorm new projects, they turn first to the company’s archival collections for inspiration. Smallidge notes that the different departments have distinct approaches to the research process. While some employees seek out a detailed history for every shoe they request, others want a simple photograph and nothing else. After eight years, Smallidge has become well-versed in anticipating different users’ needs and responding accordingly. Currently, Smallidge is developing a plan to make the archives more user-friendly for the company’s design team. With a few layout changes, he’s optimistic that he can create an inviting physical space for designers to interact with the archival materials.
When it comes to a brand as widely-recognizable as Converse, the impact of communicating the company’s history is crucial. Smallidge takes that task to heart. His work not only preserves the fascinating history of the Converse brand, it informs the active use of the company’s past to shape its future. Smallidge’s advocacy has stabilized the position of the archives within the corporate structure, while his creative and thoughtful inreach has effectively communicated the company’s history to the employees that will build its future.