By Ilana Gershon
Since people weren’t using job ads to find applicants or positions until the mid-1880s, what did they turn to? They ended up turning to intelligence offices, which managed a number of different tasks, including staffing, finding lost animals, branding animals, providing information about how commodities were doing in the marketplace, or information about commodities that are rare or unusual, and also serving as a pawn shop. The first ad for an intelligence office I could find is James Hulme announcing in the Pennsylvania Gazette that he has successfully set one up in 1774. By 1812, people were writing op-eds to New York City newspapers criticizing intelligence offices for placing servants and then luring them to another position by delivering tempting flyers about a new workplace to the servants’ workplace only a few days after they were placed. From this critique, it seems clear that in 1812, both job seeker and employer paid the same amount (50 cents) to be matched. The intelligence offices became such a problem that the NY legislature passed a law on February 4, 1822 insisting that intelligence offices required a license in an attempt to regulate them. Other states soon followed – scurrilous intelligence offices was a concern for state legislatures for many decades, and various states experimented with ways to regulate the private employment offices. It did take a while, however, for dictionaries to acknowledge this institution. Webster (in 1884) defined intelligence offices as “an office or place where information may be obtained, particularly respecting servants to be hired.”
By the time the Webster dictionary started defining intelligence offices, employment bureaus which were free to the job-seeker had already been well-established. In the 1850s, the New York YMCA branch offered services similar to intelligence offices, hoping to help the young men who were boarding at the YMCA find jobs. In 1866, the Chicago YMCA became concerned that Civil War vets were having trouble finding jobs when they returned home, and hired a man to work full time on job placement, and in 1875, he had placed 4,000 men that year alone (Hopkins 1951).
Starting in perhaps the late 1880s, the widespread distrust of private employment bureaus sparked an interest in having government-run employment bureaus. The Colorado Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1887-1889 publishes the first official statement advocating for government involvement in labor exchanges (Sautter 1983: 375). But this attempt did not succeed in the Colorado state legislature. Instead, the first government agencies were established in Ohio in 1890, in part because the Ohio Labor Commissoner was so impressed by Parisian employment bureaus, and was able to persuade the Ohio legislature to create agencies in the state’s five biggest cities (Sautter 1983: 382). While in Ohio, the government-run employment agencies were relatively successful, other states found it more difficult to serve a wide range of clients well. The New York agency closed in 1906, after being open only 10 years, in part because it had devolved into only helping workers in domestic service. At the time, there were over 800 commercial employment bureaus in the city. Unions, meanwhile, were suspicious of these charitable and government bureaus, and believed that part of their function was to help employers easily hire strike-breakers.
Hopkins, Charles Howard. 1951. History of the Y.M.C.A in North America. New York: Association Press.
Savickas, M. L., & Baker, D. B. 2005. The History of Vocational Psychology: Antecedents, Origin, and Early Development. In W. B. Walsh & M. L. Savickas (Eds.), Contemporary topics in vocational psychology. Handbook of vocational psychology: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 15-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sautter, Udo. 1983. “North American Government Labor Agencies Before World War One: A Cure for Unemployment?” Labor History 24(3): 366-393.