by Ilana Gershon
This is my application to be a member of the Society for the Study of Boring Things. To write my book, Down and Out in the New Economy, I attended many workshops for job seekers and read many job advice manuals. I kept wondering how and when these practices ever got started. Some things are well-known — Mark Granovetter started the trend to favor weak ties when networking through his 1974 study, Getting a Job (which I talk about at length in my own book). But other aspects I had no idea — where did the resume come from? What was the first job ad in the United States? Who first came up with the idea of behavioral interviewing or the informational interview?
In honor of Labor Day, I am posting this week everything I have uncovered about the history of hiring. Clearly, this is a topic that needs a better and more systematic historian, and if anyone wants to do this, I will happily hand over all my primary sources.
Today — Resumes
Resumes, or curriculum vitae, might have existed in various forms in the 1910s, but were not yet a named genre. For quite a while they were called data sheets, and were not necessarily expected to accompany an application (DeKay 2003). Indeed, the resume was so far from being a widely circulated genre that in 1914, a magazine writer describing how to hire good employees, was forced to explain in detail what type of document an especially desirable applicant submitted, since the writer lacked the handy term “resume.” He wrote: “With the letter was enclosed an abstract giving a complete history of education and business experience, including all positions held salaries received and names of firms worked for.” (Oliver 1914: 137) The applicant was not inventing this genre out of whole cloth, 1914 was the same year that the resume as a genre was also first discussed in college business communication courses. (Popken 1999) Job applications did not regularly contain a separate sheet of paper listing educational and vocational history labeled a resume until the late 1930s. (DeKay 2003)
In my survey of U.S. newspaper classified ads, job ads were not consistently requesting applicants’ resumes until the early 1950s – the first mention in a job ad that I found was 1952. The mention I found was in a Washington D.C. newspaper, The Evening Star, in an ad for an automobile salesman. The same classified section had ads for engineers or IBM machine operators, as well as cooks and all sorts of office jobs or blue-collar jobs, but none of these ads asked for a resume. Even until the mid-1980s, most job ads didn’t request resumes up front – instead they suggested a number to call to arrange for an interview or recommending applying in person. But by the mid-1980s, almost every ad that discussed office work or a job that might require a BA also mentioned submitting a resume.
The first mention of the functional resume can be found in 1952 – first suggested in Carl Naether’s The Business Letter: Its Principles and Problems. By 1955, 50% of the textbooks discussing resumes described functional resumes as a viable option. (DeKay 2003: 370).
DeKay, Samuel. 2003. “The Historical Evolution of a Written Genre: The Employment Resume in the United States, 1950-1999.” Phd Dissertation, Fordham University.
Oliver, H. M. 1914. “Finding the Right Man: Efficient Methods of Selecting Men to Fill Important Positions.” Business (March): 136-138.
Popken, Randall. “The Pedagogical Dissemination of a Genre: The Resume in American Business Discourse Textbooks, 1914-1939.” JAC 19 (1999): 91-116.
Thelen, Erik. 1998. “The Evolution of the Application Letter in America: 1880-1960.” Phd Thesis. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.