The Office before the Civil War
One comes away from a visit to the offices of a skyscraper with the image of large, well-lighted rooms where female clerical workers preside over metal desks and filing cabinets, copying machines, typewriters, and large potted plants. But little more than a hundred years ago, the picture was very different. Offices were small and staffed by men. In “Bartleby,” Herman Melville describes the clerks in a Wall Street lawyer’s office. Turkey, an Englishman of sixty, always drank a good deal with his noontime dinner and his florid face thereafter “blazed like a grate full of Christmas coals.” It was also in the afternoon that Turkey’s “business capacities [were] seriously disturbed for the remainder of the twenty-four hours. Not that he was absolutely idle, or averse to business, then; far from it. The difficulty was, he was apt to be altogether too energetic. There was a strange, inflamed, flurried, flighty recklessness of activity about him. He would be incautious in dipping his pen into his inkstand. All his blots upon my documents, were dropped there after twelve o’clock, meridian. Indeed, not only would he be reckless, and daily given to making blots in the afternoon, but, some days, he went further, and was rather noisy.” Nippers, the second clerk, was “a whiskered, sallow, and, upon the whole, rather piratical-looking young man.” He spent much of the day adjusting the height and angle of his desk. His employer also complained of Nippers’ “diseased ambition,” which was “evinced by a certain impatience of the duties of a mere copyist, and unwarrantable usurpation of strictly professional affairs, such as the drawing up of legal documents.” No doubt Nippers put these documents to his own use, for he was “considerable of a ward politician, [and] occasionally did a little business at the Justices’ courts. . . . Ginger Nut, the third on my list, was a lad, some twelve years old. His father was a car-man, ambitious of seeing his son on the bench instead of a cart, before he died. So he sent him to my office, as student at law, errand-boy, cleaner and sweeper, at the rate of one dollar a week. He had a little desk to himself, but he did not use it much. . . . Not the least among the employments of Ginger Nut, as well as one which he discharged with the most alacrity, was his duty as cake and apple purveyor for Turkey and Nippers.”1
The main clerical work done in this lawyer’s office, where documents often had to be reproduced in triplicate or more, was copying. The work in other offices of that day may have been more heavily concentrated on other tasks, such as bookkeeping, depending on the firm in question. But their small scale was a characteristic common to all pre-Civil War offices, reflecting the political economy of the time.
Prior to the Civil War, the United States was overwhelmingly agrarian.2 Most rural Americans produced for their own use—they planted and harvested their own grain, vegetables, and fruits; raised, slaughtered, and cured their own meat; ate the eggs of their own chickens; drank the milk of their own cows. Any surplus was sold to buy goods not produced in the household, such as horseshoes, wagons, or metal cooking ware. These were bought in the nearest town, or on occasion from a traveling peddler, and, by and large, were produced locally. There were very few enterprises geared to the national market, and those that were were hampered by a distributive network that was rudimentary and slow. Until the 1820s, when the first canals were dug, goods traveled over roads or natural waterways. It was not until the 1850s that railroad lines started to stretch over more than a few miles; the golden spike that marked the connection of the east and west coasts was not hammered in until 1869.
Nonetheless, some enterprises operated on a national scale. Insurance companies, for example, got their start as supportive institutions for the commerce and shipping that flourished in east coast seaports around 1800. Merchants and shipowners did a brisk trade in the transport and sale of southern cotton and tobacco, manufactured goods from Britain, tea and spices from China, rum and sugar from the West Indies, and, last but by no means least, African slaves. In order to protect themselves from the financial disasters of shipwreck and piracy, these merchants insured their boats and cargo.3 Banks also operated on a regional or national scale. They often had branches in several cities and issued their own currency, which resulted in some chaos since the actual worth of any particular banknote varied widely. After 1836, when the Second National Bank lost its charter, there were no national banks, and the era of “wildcat banking” began, lasting until 1863. The currencies of state and municipal banks, however, still circulated throughout the country.4
Some industrial firms also produced for regional markets before the Civil War. Located primarily in New England, these factories produced mainly cotton and woolen cloth. Samuel Slater established the first spinning mill in 1790, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island; over twenty years later the first mill combining all the textile manufacturing processes—carding, spinning, and weaving—was built in Waltham, Massachusetts. A group of Boston sea merchants, whose trade had been severely handicapped by the European wars and the War of 1812, were looking for new ways of investing their capital. Their venture was considered a daring one at the time. English textile factories had a fifty-year headstart and dominated the cloth market. But the Boston Manufacturing Company built their mill nonetheless and very quickly made a success of it. They did not, however, try to compete with the English manufacturers in the production of finely woven or beautifully dyed cloth. Instead they concentrated on rough sheeting, much of which was turned into clothing for slaves in the South.5
Industrial manufacturing, then, had taken firm root in New England by the Civil War, but it did not yet dominate the American political economy. Antebellum enterprises were still quite small and limited to a local market. Small-town merchants mainly sold their wares to local folk. In large towns and cities, numerous dry goods merchants with modest operations competed for customers—large department stores were not established until the latter part of the nineteenth century. This pattern for the merchandising of dry goods was duplicated in any number of commercial concerns.
The prevalence of small businesses in turn held down the size of office staffs. Even the larger enterprises mentioned above—insurance companies, banks, and some factories—hired only a few clerks. Despite the small size of pre–Civil War offices, however, it is possible to differentiate among the various kinds of office work.
A copyist, or scrivener as he was sometimes called, did exactly what his name implies—he copied. Working from the rough draft of a letter or legal document, he would copy it out in a fine hand, using a quill pen and drying the freshly written ink with sand. He would also often proofread the documents he copied, as Melville notes in “Bartleby.” “Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original.”6 A copyist’s primary skill, therefore, was penmanship, the ability to write a neat and legible hand. The more quickly he could write, of course, the better. If he was an accurate speller who could catch mistakes in his employer’s rough draft, well and good, although this does not seem to have been an absolute requirement of the job.
A lawyer’s business generally warranted hiring at least one copyist. The attorney who handled a real estate transaction, for example, would probably have at least four copies of the official transaction drawn up—one each for the seller, the buyer, the public records office, and himself. It is easy to imagine the amount of copying that even a moderately prosperous lawyer would require.
Other enterprises, however, did not involve as much paperwork and might employ a clerk who counted copying only as one among several skills and duties. Thomas Hancock was a prominent eighteenth-century Boston merchant whose ships sailed to England as well as the West Indies and who had many business contacts in both places. Some of the cargo brought back to Boston by his vessels was sold in his store. Hancock had a “compting room” where the routine office work was handled by clerks, although his nephew John once complained that he was “reduced at the last Moment to write my own letters.” In general, the Hancocks would write the rough draft of a letter on any available scrap of paper; their clerks were then to make the final copy. Foreign letters were also copied into the letter book. The Hancocks insured against loss at sea by having additional copies of foreign correspondence sent by later boats.7
In the offices of merchants, it would seem, copying was not the meticulous or painstaking affair that it was likely to be where a copyist was employed as such for the express purpose of transcribing documents. “Frequently [the letters from Hancock’s office] were dashed off at the last moment before a ship sailed, and bear traces of scurry; many contain phrases such as ‘Inclosed we send you an original Letter from Mr. Winslow as we have no Time to copy it,’ and ‘the sudden Departure of this Vessell prevents my writing to——.’”8 The Baltimore merchant Robert Oliver, whose fortune amounted to over a million dollars at the time of his death, was one of the richest men in the country. “He generally composed the letters, except possibly routine ones, that their clerk William Knight copied into the Letter Books at the countinghouse on Second Street. Robert did some of the copying himself. . . .”9
The copyist hired only to copy letters and documents was analogous to the typist in the post–Civil War office. Although the job ideally required the ability to write in a clear hand, it was not one that carried much responsibility. Nor did it afford opportunities for gaining experience and competence in a wide variety of office tasks, in contrast to such office jobs as the general clerk or bookkeeper. The author of the House of Hancock suggests that copying was not considered to be a complicated job. When John Hancock was first brought into his uncle’s firm during the French and Indian Wars, “he is hardly mentioned in the business papers, and there is no sign of his having done anything more responsible than make neat copies in his uncle’s letter book.”10 While a copyist restricted to this chore would undoubtedly learn about the firm’s business practices from its letters and documents, he would not gain much practical experience in other aspects of office work, such as keeping the books, extracting money from debtors, evading creditors, or even composing letters. However, many firms did not seem to have enough paperwork to merit hiring someone for the exclusive purpose of copying, and much of it was done by clerks as one among many office tasks.
Copying was not viewed as complicated work requiring a good deal of training, but such was not the case with bookkeeping. The bookkeeper kept the financial records of his firm. These records, at the minimum, were a written accounting of financial transactions and of debts and credits. At the maximum, a firm’s ledgers provide an easy-to-read picture of assets and liabilities, the state of financial relations with any other businesses, and the profit or loss incurred by any particular venture. The practice of keeping written accounts goes back to antiquity, but principles of double-entry bookkeeping, which lie at the root of modern bookkeeping, were first written down by a Venetian monk, Luca Paciolo, in 1494.11
Although a codified system of double-entry bookkeeping existed, it was not always used. It was not unusual for Thomas Hancock, in the firm’s early days, to accept payment in kind (such as grain, livestock, or other produce), which he either consumed himself or sold in his store. If he deemed that the payment squared the debt in question, he was unlikely to enter the transaction in his ledger. Neither Thomas nor his nephew John Hancock was in the habit of recording more than outstanding debts or credits in his ledgers. Thus many of the Hancocks’ financial transactions were simply never written down, and their books hardly reflected a complete picture of their dealings.12 According to Matthew Josephson, some highly successful nineteenth-century capitalists dispensed with a bookkeeper altogether. Cornelius Vanderbilt “had no recognizable system for running his railroads; his books were kept in his head, or in an old cigar box, according to some reports; yet so parsimonious, so stern in management was he that he was never to lose a day’s interest on the smallest of sums.”13 And about Daniel Drew: “This ‘Sphinx of the Stock Market’ was as suspicious as Vanderbilt, also kept all his accounts in his head and considered the whole paraphernalia of bookkeeping a confounded fraud.”14
This absence of a single method of bookkeeping does not mean that each firm developed its own system from scratch. For example, bookkeeping courses were taught in some high schools before the Civil War. John D. Rockefeller studied bookkeeping at Cleveland’s Central High School in the 1850s, and, at sixteen, worked as a bookkeeper for a produce merchant on the city’s docks. Bookkeepers were also trained through various forms of apprenticeship. In 1835 the young Jay Cooke went to work as a clerk in a dry goods, grocery, and hardware store in Sandusky, Ohio. “His salary was $250 a year. He stayed with this firm one year, during which time, in the leisure of winter days when there was little trade, he learned double-entry bookkeeping from one of the partners, and also chess.”15 In Dreiser’s The Financier, Frank Cowperwood, a ruthless Philadelphia capitalist, started out as an apprentice bookkeeper.16
Whether a bookkeeper learned the trade in school or on the job as an apprentice, he was in a commanding position to understand the practices of his firm. Unlike the twentieth-century clerical worker, a bookkeeper in a pre–Civil War business was acquainted with all of its financial dealings and records, rather than being restricted to a single specialized department that paid bills, or sent bills, or credited accounts, and so on. Antebellum firms were simply not large enough to necessitate breaking their office operations down into different sections. Thus a bookkeeper understood the entire scope of a business’s operations and his books disclosed a complete picture of its finances (to the extent, of course, that complete books were kept.)
The messenger, errand boy, or office boy, as he was variously named, was another fixture of the antebellum office staff. Ginger Nut, of Melville’s “Bartleby,” was just such an office boy, although his main duty seems to have been going out to buy cookies for the copyists. Most office boys were charged with a variety of other tasks as well. Since there were no telephones, an office boy would be dispatched to carry a message to another firm or person, and often would wait to bring back a reply. He also served as a delivery boy, carrying copies of documents to the various interested parties. He procured supplies for the office, including everything from food to quill pens; and had housekeeping duties as well, such as refilling ink wells, keeping pots filled with fresh sand for the copyists to dry their manuscripts, and sweeping up and dusting at the beginning or end of the work day. In short, the office boy did not have a prescribed set of routine tasks. Rather, his main responsibility was to be available for any minor task that might arise. Although he would usually spend his day doing relatively menial work—running personal errands and keeping the office clean—he was not chained to his desk in the monotonous execution of the same assignment. Most office boys were just that, boys, and their job was only a steppingstone to a clerkship.
Clerks were by far the largest occupational group in antebellum offices. Their duties were quite varied, their tasks depending upon the kind of firm that employed them. Jay Cooke, in his early years as a clerk for the Washington Packet and Transportation Company in Philadelphia, “kept books, solicited trade, handled publicity for the company, and served as general assistant.”17 A year later, as a broker’s clerk, he wrote with a clear hand, figured with accuracy and speed, and did bookkeeping.18
Thus, clerks had a wide range of tasks. At the end of the War of 1812, a Massachusetts shipowner and merchant, anxious to get his ships under way, gave the following directions to his clerks: “Go out and collect as many laborers as possible to go up river; Charles, do you go and find Mr. ________, the rigger, and Mr. _________, the sail-maker, and tell them I want to see them immediately; John, go and engage half a dozen truckmen for today and to-morrow; Stephen, hunt up as many caulkers and gravers as you can find, and engage them to work.”19 One of “A Great Merchant’s Recollections of Old New York” was of his early-morning duties as a merchant’s clerk: “It was a very different thing, in those days, to be a boy in a store from what it is now . . . I had to go every morning to Vanderwater Street for the keys, as my employers must have them in case of fire in the night. There was much ambition among the young men as to who should have his store opened first, and I used to be up soon after light, walk to Vanderwater Street and then to the store very early. It was to be sprinkled with water, which I brought the evening before from the old pump at the corner of Peck Slip and Pearl Street, then carefully swept and dusted. Then came sprinkling the sidewalk and street, and sweeping to the center a heap for the dirtcart to remove. This done, one of the older clerks would come, and I would be permitted to go home for breakfast. In winter the wood was to be carried and piled in the cellar, fires were to be made, and lamps trimmed. I mention these particulars to show that junior clerks in those days did the work now done by the porters.”20
The typical clerk was thus afforded an opportunity to demonstrate his competence in many aspects of office work. Such was Jay Cooke’s experience in the Philadelphia brokerage firm. “Though the firm was small and its equipment simple, it had one great advantage for Jay: it gave him an opportunity to show what he could do. In such a concern as the Clark house, it was to be expected that the young clerk would have varied duties and would be given responsibilities if found equal to them. Among other things, he at first served as messenger and delivery boy, going to banks on business for the Clarks.” He soon served as teller and, after a year, wrote letters, sometimes fifteen or twenty a day. Within two years, Cooke had so proved himself that the partners granted him power of attorney to sign for the firm.21
With the exception of those who were employed purely as copyists, pre–Civil War office workers engaged in a wide variety of tasks. Their duties ranged from drafting letters to keeping the books to carrying messages from one part of town to another. Even a bookkeeper whose primary responsibility was maintaining a firm’s financial records concerned himself with all aspects of those records, instead of being confined to one small bailiwick in a bookkeeping department. Insofar as pre–Civil War office workers were in a position to master the entire scope of an office’s operations, they were not unlike craftsmen engaged in the various manual crafts. Ideally a craftsman understood and was proficient at all aspects of the work that went into the particular product. If one considers a well-run office or a well-kept set of books to be the “product,” it is possible to see many pre–Civil War clerks as craftsmen, proficient at all aspects of running an office or of bookkeeping. The work was organized as an integrated whole, rather than being broken down into a series of component parts separate from one another. This important characteristic of antebellum office work was one that it shared with the private secretary’s job in the expanded office of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The private secretary was also given responsibility for a wide range of duties and was in a position to gain a good deal of understanding about his or her employer and firm. But there is one major difference between the pre–Civil War clerk and the twentieth-century private secretary: the knowledge gained by the clerk in the course of his extensive duties could aid him in advancing in the business world. The twentieth-century private secretary, by contrast, was to find his, and particularly her, chances for advancement severely curtailed.
Relations between Clerks and Employers
Since most antebellum offices were very small, the chain of command was very simple. Usually the employer told his two or three clerks what to do; orders were not passed down a complex hierarchical ladder or funneled through successive departments.22 The tenor of office relations, however, was influenced by the personalities of both employer and, to a lesser extent, employees. The lawyer in “Bartleby” seems to have been a rather kindly but ineffectual boss: he was unable to control his irascible clerks and tried to accommodate their idiosyncratic quirks rather than give them the boot. Dickens’s Scrooge, on the other hand, was the prototypical taskmaster, keeping his clerk at his desk to the last possible second, even on Christmas Eve, and irritated that custom forced him to give the clerk a vacation day on Christmas itself.23 A clerk in 1841 wrote: “So much of a man’s character in after life depends on what kind of an employer he had when he was young, that it is worthy of being much more seriously considered by parents and young men than it is. How often do we see men, in whom we can trace the effect of this kind of education, and see the exact resemblance of their former masters in the manners, thoughts, habits, and vices, which they have copied unaware! Happily we sometimes see virtues, too, and can trace their foundation to the same sources.”24
The personal nature of the employer’s control of his clerks was reinforced by the lack of common standards of office procedure: each employer developed his own. Furthermore, his directives were not mediated by machines, nor did machines set the pace of work. The office was unlike the factory workplace, where workers might conclude that the machine rather than its owner ran them at a certain pace, and where, consequently, blame for arduous working conditions might be shifted from the employer, thereby obscuring class relations. Since there were no office machines in the antebellum office, there was no opportunity for the personal directives of the employers to be transformed into the impersonal directives of a machine.
Another important element of office relations was trust between employer and office worker. There are numerous references to “trusted employees” in writings about the pre–Civil War office. In The Financier, Dreiser sets up a running comparison between Frank Cowperwood, the unscrupulous and therefore rapidly successful financier, and his father, Henry, whose honesty is unimpeachable but whose fortune is not nearly so great as his son’s. After many years of faithful work as a clerk in a bank, Henry Cowperwood is promoted to teller, and it is suggested that his trustworthiness earns him this promotion. Then there are the liabilities attached to not being trustworthy. Jay Gould, a late nineteenth-century railroad magnate, worked in his youth as clerk to a village storekeeper. Learning that his employer was planning to buy a certain property for $2,000, Gould borrowed money from his father, got in ahead of his employer, and bought the tract for $2,500. Two weeks later he sold it again for $4,000. “But his employer, it appears, was highly incensed at what he saw as trickery or duplicity in his assistant and summarily dismissed him.”25 And a final example: writing in 1842, a clerk exhorted merchants to have trust in his kind:
The interest which clerks generally feel in the business and success of their employers, is, I believe, estimated too cheaply; and that many feel so little, is, perhaps, as often the fault of their employers as their own. The majority of clerks are young men who have hopes and prospects of business before them. They have not yet thrown off that trusting confidence and generous friendship peculiar to youth—they are disposed to think well of themselves and the world, and they feel it deeply when too great a distance is maintained between themselves and their superiors. . . .
A good clerk feels that he has an interest in the credit and success of his employer beyond the amount of his salary; and with the close of every successful year, he feels that he too, by his assiduity and fidelity, has added something to his capital—something to his future prospects, and something to his support if overtaken with adversity; and a good merchant encourages and reciprocates all these feelings.26
To a certain extent, personal trust was necessitated by the very nature of the office. The bulk of office work, as noted above, was written work—copying out letters and documents, adding up columns of figures, computing and sending out bills, keeping accurate records of financial transactions. If an employer wanted to check up on each employee’s work to make sure it was being done correctly, he had to spend most of his day overseeing the staff. The only way to be sure that a bookkeeper or clerk had tallied a column of numbers accurately was for the employer to repeat the task himself. But there was a way of avoiding a large investment of time in surveillance: an employer might establish a relationship with his clerks such that he could trust them to do their work correctly without much supervision.
Another source of trust between employer and clerk lay in the apprenticeship system, which was prevalent throughout the eighteenth century, and may well have extended into the nineteenth. The author of Daniel Henchman, A Colonial Bookseller indicates that many clerical duties were performed by youths taken on as apprentices for a particular business. “Daniel Henchman was born in Boston in 1689. Nothing is known about his early life, but on the assumption that he served the normal seven-year apprenticeship, we may conclude that he would set up as an independent bookseller about 1710.”27 The same author notes elsewhere that “it was usual for a merchant to send his son to work in the countinghouse of a distant correspondent, in order that the boy might be trained in business.”28 The eighteenth-century Hancocks would often take in the children of their agents in foreign ports, either simply for boarding or for learning the business. “Again, a Jamaica correspondent asks Thomas to board one child, who is still at school, and to take another into the countinghouse (’let me know what you would Ask with him & I’ll remit you sugar or Molasses for that purpose, before I send him over’).”29 Evidence that some clerks were still considered apprentices in the nineteenth century comes from “Familiar Scenes in the Life of a Clerk,” where mention is made of a “gentleman [who] lived in an eastern seaport town, and was a grocer, doing a considerable business. He had a boy apprenticed to him, whose name was John”—and who is thereafter referred to as the “grocer’s clerk.”30
An employer who took on an apprentice was not, ideally at least, simply hiring labor. (In fact, as the Jamaica correspondent indicated, apprentices often paid their employer for the training they were to receive.) He was also taking on the responsibility of giving a young boy good training in a trade, and of providing what was often paternal guidance. Understandably, then, the personalities of both employer and apprentice would figure prominently in their relations, and there might well exist a good deal of trust between them. Thus, to the extent that clerks in pre–Civil War offices were considered apprentices, it is not surprising that the relations between them and their employers were heavily affected by individual personalities and by the expectation of mutual trust. Clerk apprentices also shared another feature of apprenticeships: they were promoted to management or ownership positions at the end of their indenture. Even when formal apprenticeships were no longer being granted, the attitudes and standards of behavior that had accompanied them were not likely to fade away immediately.
The significance of the personal nature of the relations between employer and clerk, where trust was such an important element, is that the class differences between the two were likely to be obscured. In the first place, the typical clerk would perceive his situation in personal, rather than class, terms. If he worked for a particularly hard taskmaster, he might harbor feelings of rebelliousness. But his analysis of the situation would probably focus on personality—his employer’s greed, meanness, cruelty, and so on—rather than on the larger structure, wherein clerks sold their labor power to employers who profited from it. Since the emphasis was on the employer’s personal shortcomings, the clerk would be more likely to search for a kindlier employer than to attempt to band together with fellow clerks in protest against harsh conditions. An English commentator, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, accepts this personalization as prima facie evidence that clerks would not unionize: “For clerks a trade union has no attraction. Its advantages are not apparent, the relationship between employer and employed being in this case essentially personal.”31
The emphasis on trust between employer and employee only served to strengthen the tendency to personalize their relationship. An employer who stressed trust for his employee was establishing their relationship on a friendly, even if not equal, footing. The employee, in turn, may well have responded to such an arrangement by trying either to earn or to keep this trust. If trust, and perhaps even friendship, emerged as dominant features, it was unlikely that the relationship would be seen as antagonistic.
This tradition of personalism and trust persisted and continued to affect the relations between employer and clerk long after the antebellum office had been supplanted by later forms. But it was not only the centrality of personal relations that blurred class differences. Another, and possibly more important, factor was the opportunity for upward mobility that was available to at least some pre–Civil War clerks.
Upward Mobility among Clerks
After learning the business of the firm to which they were attached, apprenticed clerks often became owners or managers themselves. This was particularly true in the eighteenth century. John Hancock was a case in point. Brought into his uncle’s firm in the 1750s, young Hancock was at first given only minor office work. “But . . . Thomas decided that his nephew must have a bigger hand in management. The most urgent task of the moment was to make the government honor its bills. So in 1760 John was put aboard a ship bound for London, with the triple idea that he might act as debt-collector-extraordinary, make friends with English agents, and see something of Europe as befitted a young gentleman.”32 Upon his return to Boston, John Hancock was made a partner in his uncle’s firm. The apprenticed grocer’s clerk mentioned above “became devoted to his master’s business as if it had been his own, gained his entire confidence, and, although but an apprentice boy, without money and friends, in return for his devotion, the day he was twenty-one years old, he was made a partner in an extensive concern, with a large capital.”33
To be sure, many clerk apprentices who later rose to positions of management or ownership came from families that already were of the merchant or other propertied class. John Hancock, for one, was a nephew of the merchant who took him on.34 But there is evidence indicating that upward mobility, in the United States at least, was not reserved solely for such clerks. John Hancock’s “1766 expansion program included the starting of a shop, to serve as a retail counterpart for the main business. He appointed one of his clerks called Palfrey as its manager, on a profit-sharing basis; he imported some £1,800 worth of stock-in-trade for this protégé, and also gave him an extra-warm recommendation to Barnard and Harrison so that further goods might be ordered from London direct.”35 One of “A Great Merchant’s Recollections of Old New York” is of how he got his start in his own firm. As a clerk he had done business with a merchant from Connecticut, who proposed that the author go into partnership with his son, a recent Yale graduate whom his father “was anxious to place in New York.” The new venture’s initial capital was provided in the main by the Connecticut merchant, while the author contributed the small amount he had saved, mostly from his salary. Thus did one clerk begin his move up in the business world.36 Finally, Jay Cooke’s biographer remarks upon Jay’s being made a partner in a Philadelphia brokerage house at the age of twenty-one: “In view of the fact that young Cooke made no contribution of capital, his membership in the firm was clearly in recognition of his ability.”37
It would be wrong to leave the impression that upward mobility via a clerkship was available to all. The men who could obtain jobs as clerks in the first place came largely from situations of some advantage. Stephan Thernstrom has observed of nineteenth-century Newburyport that clerks were of necessity educated men. Hence their families must have been sufficiently well off to forego their sons’ potential earnings and send them to school instead.38 Furthermore, clerks were predominantly native-born at a time when immigrants were swelling the population. In mid-nineteenth-century Boston, Oscar Handlin has found, 88.2 percent of the city’s clerks were native-born, while only 3.6 percent were Irish immigrants.39
While upward mobility undoubtedly existed for antebellum office clerks, it is difficult to be precise about how widespread those opportunities were. Possibly the chance to move up was greater when the clerk-apprentice system was prevalent and diminished somewhat as the system declined.
The implications of upward mobility for clerks were clear. First, that many clerks were really apprentice owners or managers meant that their class position was complex. They were the antebellum analogues of today’s business school student or management trainee. Then, too, there were those who never attained positions of ownership but were trusted and competent office managers. Their grasp of office details, and their ability to take the initiative and make decisions on their own, enabled them to become masters in the craft of office management. Harry Braverman writes that “the clerical employees of the early nineteenth-century enterprise may, on the whole, more properly appear as the ancestors of modern professional management than of the present classification of clerical workers.”40 And yet there were surely some clerks, particularly copyists, who had neither a grasp of the basics of office management nor much chance of upward mobility. But it would have been difficult to differentiate on other than a purely personal basis between their class situations: an enterprising copyist might well be moved into the more responsible position of clerk-cum-office manager; and even clerks of humble background had opportunities to own businesses or go into partnership.
This ambiguous class position of clerks could have a profound effect on their class identity. If they believed that it was possible to move upward, they were likely to focus on how to get ahead rather than on the common problems shared by all clerks. Writing about England, David Lockwood analyzes the effect of promoting able clerical workers of working-class origins: “The example of these successful clerks must have always been a spur to the individualistic strivings of the younger clerks, while for the older and unsuccessful ones yet another confirmation that their own lowly positions were due entirely to their own deficiencies.”41 There were strong pressures on a clerk encouraging him to think of himself as an individual with a real chance of upward mobility, and not as a permanent member of his class.
The fact that many managers and owners had started out as clerks created an ideology about clerks that survived long after the facts no longer warranted it. As late as the turn of the century, the conventional wisdom had it that the way to succeed in business was to start out as a clerk. By this time the examples of clerks being promoted to positions of ownership or high-level management had become very rare indeed. But the ideology born in the pre–Civil War years died hard.
It is not through oversight that I have used masculine pronouns in referring to pre–Civil War clerks. For they were all men. The office of this era was a male preserve. This would not last, however. During the Civil War the first records of women being employed as office workers appeared.