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Early Clerical Workers

Office Clerical Workers

Nineteenth Century Clerical Work

    United States

Zakim has recently described the role of clerical workers in U.S. mercantile businesses around 1840-50:  

In smaller firms a single clerk often made sales, collected debts, and was assigned responsibility for deliveries.  Larger businesses divided the labor between a cashier whose experience in both accounting and penmanship qualified him to oversee the day-to-day affairs of the entire office, a bookkeeper who posted up transactions, made out the accounts current, and produced balance sheets when required, a sales-book clerk (or several, depending on the number of separate departments in the firm) who kept the running accounts, including storage, insurance, and labor expenses, and who was often charged with going out to collect debts, a confidential clerk who primarily managed the proprietor's private books ..., a receiving and delivery clerk also responsible for settling freight and storage bills, and a coterie of salemen .... All these cashiers, bookkeepers, penmen, and sales agents worked in close or adjacent quarters....  Robert Graham, who clerked for the well-known New York merchant prince William Aspinwall, spent his mornings writing up duplicates of the firm's correspondence until the mail went out at eleven thirty.  The rest of the day was given over to copying accounts current and invoices, or copying duplicates of additional letters into the firm's correspondence book. ....

"Writing operations" were of paramount importance in the office....  Lawyers typically required four copies of each real estate transaction they brokered.... Many firms also insisted on making three copies of all their correspondence, sending two of the same letter out separately in case one was lost in the mails....  In fact, the efficient, unadorned "clerk-like manner of writing" originally developed for recording figures in ledgers and issuing bills of credit now became the universal standard for the male hand."  Michael Zakim, "The Business Clerk as Social Revolutionary," n.d.

Davies describes the tasks of clerical workers employed in U.S. offices before the Civil War:  "The bulk of the office work...was written work--copying out letters and documents, adding up columns of figures, computing and sending out bills, keeping accurate records of financial transactions."  Offices were small and each worker performed a variety of work. There were no machines, except for letter copying presses. All office workers were male. There was upward mobility: "clerks often became owners or managers themselves."  Because clerks required an education, clerks generally came from relatively affluent families and were predominantly native-born. (Davies, 1982, pp. 12-24)

Davies continues:  "Before the Civil War there had been four basic clerical jobs in the office: copyist, bookkeeper, messenger or office buy, and clerk.  This relatively simple range of occupations was expanded and elaborated following the war, with the division of labor most pronounced in the largest offices.  File clerks, shipping clerks, billing clerks...began to appear."  (Davies, 1982, p. 30)  "Finally, opportunities for a clerical worker to advance to ownership or management positions were greatly diminished."  (Davies, 1982, p. 50)


1903_Superannuated_Man_by_Charles_Lamb_1825.JPG (116572 bytes)A considerable number of office clerks appear in nineteenth century British literature.  The literary characterizations of the working conditions of these clerical workers is quite often unfavorable.  Charles Lamb's 1825 essay "The Superannuated Man" began:  "If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life--thy shining youth--in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holydays, or to remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only will you be able to appreciate my deliverance.  It is now six and thirty years since I took my seat at the desk in Mincing-lane.  Melancholy was the transition at fourteen from the abundant playtime, and the frequently-intervening vacations of school days, to the eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours' a-day attendance at the counting-house. ... It is true I had my Sundays to myself.... But besides Sundays I had a day at Easter, and a day at Christmas, with a full week in the summer.... Before I had a taste of it, it was vanished.  I was at the desk again, counting upon the fifty-one tedious weeks that must intervene before such another snatch would come. ... I was fifty years of age, and no prospect of emancipation presented itself. I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul."  (Illustration at right from William MacDonald, ed., "Superannuated Man," The Last Essays of Elia, in The Works of Charles Lamb, Vol. II, p. 86)

In Britain, even in 1876, clerks typically began work as apprentices.  In the Liverpool cotton brokerage trade, "The apprentice's duties consisted of outdoor work such as the distribution of circulars, the carrying of notes and telegrams and the collection of receipts and invoices.  Indoor work consisted of a routine of 'copying letters, addressing envelopes, checking invoices....'" (Anderson, 1976, p. 14)

In one of the many late nineteenth century British novels about the lives of office clerks, Besant wrote the following about a fictional clerk named Allen:  "He is eighteen years of age; he has been for three years a clerk in the City of London.  He goes there every morning at half-past eight, and returns every evening at half-past six.  He is away, therefore, for ten hours.  During this long time he sits upon a stool, he copies letters, he enters figures in a book, he adds up, he makes notes, he carries messages, he goes here, he goes there....  He is a servant. ... In Allen's service he cannot rise unless by extraordinary chance, because he has no money. For him there is no future, he must always be a servant.  It is already, for him, the life of a dog.  In ten years it will be the life of a thousand dogs." (Besant, 1883, p. 130)

In a later British novel, a clerk in London named Robert Thorne says: "Being junior in our room, which dealt largely with correspondence, I had a junior position there, and that meant inferior duties--copying letters, indexing papers, addressing envelopes, clearing trays, carrying and fetching messages, keeping the correspondence book, besides duties of a more servile nature, such as making up the fire, attending the telephone, working the revolving stamp.  (Bullock, 1907, p. 139)

Clerical Employment [Images coming]

The share of the U.S. non-agricultural labor force that was accounted for by clerical workers increased from 5 percent in 1900 to 11 percent in 1920. During this period, the 286 percent increase in the number of clerical workers was considerably greater than the percentage increase for other categories of white collar workers; the increase was 85 percent for professional workers, 65 percent for managerial workers, and 57 percent for sales workers. (Golden & Katz 1995) 

One likely explanation for the relative increase in the number of clerical employees in the economy is a shift to services. Over time, as incomes increased, output in service industries expanded more quickly than output in the rest of the economy because of a relatively high income elasticity of demand for services. Service industries (such as insurance, banking and other financial services, and government) made intensive use of clerical workers. Similarly, some new industries, such as mail order distribution, made heavy use of clerical workers.

A second likely explanation for the relative increase in the number of clerical employees in the economy is the growth of large corporations serving regional or national, rather than local, markets. Over time a larger share of economic activity in a wide range of industries was conducted by large corporations, as transportation and communications costs fell, manufacturing became mechanized, access to outside capital became important, and advertising and branding were used to market products. Large corporations made greater relative use of employees identified as clerical workers than did smaller companies. This could be true because of greater use of clerical work and because more clerical work was done by people identified as "clerical workers" as a result of greater specialization.  A number of sources also suggest that management methods in larger companies improved over time, and that managers made greater use of clerical staffs to produce and process information for use in company decision making, particularly cost accounting and sales analyses after 1910. Also, with the expansion of geographic markets, written correspondence increased.  Adshade and Keay (2004, p. 2) state that "In 1923, the rubber tire industry in Ohio consisted of 75 establishments each hiring an average of 775 workers with less than 10% of these workers categorized as clerical workers.  By 1937, the number of establishments manufacturing tires in Ohio had fallen to 22, the average number of workers per firm had grown to 2380, and the proportion of those workers doing clerical type jobs had risen to over 15%."

A third likely explanation for the relative increase in clerical employment in the economy is expansion in government regulation and taxation. Regulation and taxation increased the number of government clerical workers and made it necessary for companies to improve cost accounting and record keeping and to report more information and data to government auditors, regulators, and the public. Increased reliance on outside financing had a similar effect. According to Robert Sobel, "The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the first in a series of regulatory measures, marked the start of a new era in government-industry relations. One of the provisions of the Act required the carriers to submit regular reports. [T]he [New York Stock] Exchange required listing companies to submit annual reports as early as 1895, and five years later such reports were made a prerequisite for listing." (The Big Board, 1965, p. 177)

These first three explanations relate to the demand for clerical output and hence clerical workers. A fourth likely explanation relates to the supply of potential clerical workers.  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, U.S. clerical workers generally needed a high school education, often supplemented with a year or two of vocational training at a business college. The share of teenagers that obtained a high school education increased substantially in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Beginning in the 1860s, many business colleges were set up in U.S. cities. According to Bjelopera (2005, p. 2), in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "Most [clerks] either received training in two-year business colleges or attended specialized commercial high-school programs that prepared students for clerical work." Business colleges typically offered majors in commercial practice (including banking), bookkeeping, penmanship, stenography (including shorthand and, beginning in the 1880s, typing), and, in some cases, telegraphy.  These colleges also required students to take basic courses in spelling, grammar, business correspondence, and arithmetic. Bjelopera (p. 61) also reports that "In 1871 the nation's private business schools admitted 6,460 students.  By 1920 enrollment had expanded to 188,363, but by then public high-school business programs, with a total enrollment above 400,000, had taken over most of the business education in the United States." This increase in supply of educated workers entering the labor force (presumably in part in response to the opportunities for employment as clerical workers) made possible a large expansion in clerical employment without a very large increase in the real wages of clerical workers, although the increase was significant between 1890 and 1914. (See Goldin & Katz (1995) for time-series data on real incomes of clerical workers. For example, the real annual income of urban female clerks measured in 1914 dollars increased from $520 in 1890 to $740 in 1914, fell to $620 in 1919, and then rose to $733 in 1929.) If the increased supply of high school graduates had not been forthcoming, presumably real wages of clerical workers and other high school graduates would have increased substantially more than they did, and employers would have found additional ways to economize on use of clerical workers. In that case, the increase in clerical employment would have been less than it was.

A remaining issue is the effect of the increased supply and declining real prices of office machines (typewriters beginning in the late 1880s, and many types of office machines beginning around 1905) on clerical employment. New and cheaper office machines reduce the cost of clerical output. As a result, they encourage employers to make greater use of clerical output, e.g., write more letters and compute more data. However, use of machines also reduces the amount of clerical labor per letter and per computation. As a result, one cannot predict a priori whether the machines would lead to an expansion or reduction in clerical employment, other things equal.

Of course, clerical workers are not homogeneous. The availability of office machines, regardless of its effect on total clerical employment, may have reduced the demand for some skilled clerical workers (e.g., bookkeepers who could rapidly add four-digit numbers in their heads) and increased the demand for some less skilled workers (e.g., adding machine operators). However, a worker needed specialized training and experience to operate a Comptometer calculating machine at high speed.


Adshade, Marina, and Ian Keay, "Enabling the Visible Hand: Female Labour Force Participation and Industrial Concentration in the Early 20th Century," Dalhousie University and Queen's University, 2004.
Anderson, Gregory, Victorian Clerks, 1976.
Besant, Walter, All in a Garden Fair, 1883.
Bjelopera, Jerome P., City of Clerks: Office and Sales Workers in Philadelphia, 1870-1920, 2005.
Bullock, Shan F., Robert Thorne: The Story of a London Clerk, 1907.
Davies, Margery W., Woman's Place Is at the Typewriter, 1982.
Goldin, Claudia, and Lawrence F. Katz, "The Decline of Non-Competing Groups: Changes in the Premium to Education, 1890 to 1940," National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 5202, Aug. 1995.
Lamb, Charles, "Superannuated Man," The Last Essays of Elia, in McDonald, William, The Works of Charles Lamb, Vol. II, 1903.

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