by Ilana Gershon
American newspapers carried announcements about jobs from as early as 1705. The first job ad I found was in The Boston News-Letter, asking for a “single able man to drive a team in Boston.” (March 4, 1705; issue 98; page 4). A few job ads appeared in every newspaper, but they were clearly outnumbered by the other ads announcing goods or land for sale, or runaway indentured laborers or slaves. In a newspaper filled with approximately 400 ads, there might be 4 ads about hiring someone. And these ads were as likely to be ads in which the person was seeking a position as much as an employer looking to hire. Most of the job ads until around 1750 weren’t even what we might consider proper bjob ads. They advertised indentured servants, asking if anyone wanted to buy their time. It wasn’t until around 1825 that newspapers began to carry a substantial number of job ads. A few years later, ads began to run for factory workers.
People tended to advertise for apprentices, cooks, maids, and wet nurses. Women were as likely to be requested or advertise themselves as available in a newspaper ad as men, although it was always clear which jobs could be filled by women and which by men. Around 1785, jobs ads began to discuss whether the applicant should be black or white, and black people might also be likely to advertise that they were looking for a position. In 1790, George Washington, or at least “the family of the President of the United States” advertised that they are looking for a cook and a coachman.
Around the 1830’s, newspapers began to clump ads together – beforehand job ads would be scattered throughout the newspaper, interspersed with everything else being advertised. Clumping was not adopted uniformly, and it wasn’t until 1856 that newspapers began to reliably have “help wanted” and “situation wanted sections.” At some point around 1856, newspapers began to split the help wanted section based on gender – lumping ads for help-wanted females or situation-wanted females together, as well as help-wanted males or situation-wanted males. Given how gender specific jobs were at this period, the division isn’t surprising at all. This however didn’t happen in all newspapers at the same time, and indeed, ten years later, newspapers such as the Providence Evening Press still hadn’t adopted this way of classifying ads. Once established, this division was a practice which would continue until the Civil Rights Act legislated against it in 1964.
There are a few other things to note about what early job ads can reveal about how information about jobs circulated in those days. Until around 1795, employers did not suggest being contacted directly. Instead applicants were supposed to ask the Postmaster about the job details, or ask the printer. After 1795, job ads often mentioned exact street addresses where named people could be approached about the job. Recommendations were occasionally asked for – sometimes employers wanted an applicant to be well-recommended, sometimes a job seeker promised that he or she came with good recommendations. While recommendations weren’t discussed much until the early 1800s, between 1800 and 1805 it became commonplace for employers to insist that servants come with good recommendations. But that was the only thing asked for – there was no mention of resumes or interviews until much much later.