Employment agencies and classified job ads have a much longer history than you might think. Join us for a brief history of early modern employment agencies. Stick around for a preview of how Marissa is using this fascinating history in her dissertation about wet nursing in London and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century.
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Transcript for Employment Agencies in Early Modern Britain:
Based on original research by Marissa Rhodes
Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Marissa: We all have that curmudgeonly relative who, at the holiday table, laments the end of the “good old days” when social media wasn’t a thing, everyone knew everyone, people answered their doors when someone knocked on them, and business was done face-to-face. In some ways he’s right. Digital technology has made job-searching, hiring, college applications, and reference letters much less personal than these activities were 50 years ago. But history tells us that thankfully, your grumpy and slightly racist relative is mostly wrong. Even in 2016, a recent survey of over 3,000 employees showed that as many as 85% of jobs are obtained through personal networking. What’s more is that employment agencies and classified job ads have a MUCH longer history than you might think. Three hundred years ago, long before the advent of the interwebz, someone else’s curmudgeonly relative sat at the holiday table bemoaning the decline of personal interaction. Today I’m giving you all a sneak peek into some of the research I’m doing for my (close-ish to done) dissertation. And Sarah is along for the ride. Now I know what you’re thinking: Marissa, aren’t you dissertating about boobs or something? Correct! I am. But one of the most important parts of understanding the life experiences of wet-nurses in the eighteenth century, is understanding the transformation of their trade. This bit of research has led me to this brief history of early modern employment agencies. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about boobs and class and race and poverty and all that fun stuff too.
I’m Marissa Rhodes
And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins.
Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Sarah: Starting around 1600, most of Northwestern Europe (Notably England, Scotland, the Netherlands, NW France, NW Germany, and Scandinavia) underwent rapid structural urbanization. In 1500, there were only 30 cities in all of Northwestern Europe and none of them contained more than 80,000 people. In 1600, there were still only 30 cities in Northwest Europe and all of them remained small except for one: London. Between 1600 and 1800, the number of cities more than tripled from 30 to 105. By 1800 there were five cities which had more than 80,000 people and London had reached the 1 million mark. Now this was not just natural increase. Birth rates were low in early modern cities and mortality was high. These many massive urban centers grew as Europeans fled the countryside, in search of work in the city. So as cities grew, countrysides suffered depopulation.
Prior to the depopulation of the countryside, rural areas had been good places for people to find work. In fact, early version of job fairs– called hiring fairs, statute fairs or colloquially “mop fairs”– were held annually in November in many market towns, most famously in Yorkshire towns like Hornsea and Pocklington. This was all part of a long tradition of regulated labor in England. The 1351 Statute of Laborers established these fairs after the Black Death caused massive labor shortages in agricultural communities. The Statute of Artificiers in 1563 (which I’ve mentioned many times for its attempts to control women’s reproduction) also set a day each year when shire magistrates would set pay rates and employment conditions for the following year. Then, at the mop fair, male and female laborers would gather to negotiate employment arrangements for the following year. As large gatherings of people are wont to do, these mop fairs usually devolved into huge parties, with feasts, drinking, dancing, and other recreational pastimes (read: sex.)
Marissa: But as Europe became more urban, so did the people who lived there. And urbanites developed new modes of arranging employment. Structural urbanization (the process Sarah described above) illustrates the physical movement of peoples from one area to another. But we are interested in behavioral urbanization. Behavioral urbanization refers to the process of change in people’s lifestyles, modes of conduct, and points of view as their living environments change. In 1500, there were 3.4 million people in all of Northwestern Europe who lived urban lifestyles. This is no small number. But by 1800, there were 12.2 million urbanites in Europe and 1 million of them lived in the same city: London. The city was populated almost entirely by migrants and foreigners who were underemployed in the countryside. In a society that is assumed to have operated on face-to-face communications, letter writing and complex personal networks, how did people new to the city secure employment? They knew few people, usually didn’t have marketable skills and changed jobs frequently because of fluctuating markets.
Most ordinary Londoners struggled to find “places” or jobs because they lived in an urban market saturated by potential labor as migrants continued to arrive. Keep in mind this is before, or right at the beginning of, the industrial revolution which created droves of unskilled jobs for migrants. It was tough. Unsurprisingly then, workers and employers began to invest in organized employment streams which promised to connect them with prospective employers. Today we call these employment agencies or temp agencies. Workers, and employers, also began using the burgeoning newspaper industry to place classified advertisements to find places or fill vacancies (respectively).
Sarah: These activities evolved slowly, spurred by increasing need, sometimes even desperation. In societies with few literate people, town criers were used to spread news of job openings, items for sale, lost items or even missing people. In 1550, only 16% of Brits were literate. This number improved to 53% by 1650. These figures are skewed since they include urban and rural areas. In cities, literacy rates were much higher. In 1750 London, as many as 92% of men and 74% of women were able to read. In Amsterdam, the literacy rate hovered around 85% in the 1780s. This new generation of literate city folk developed new modes of sharing information beyond gossip and the old town crier.
Marissa: After 1650, post offices, coffee-houses, pubs, and newspaper offices began to display notice boards where locals could pin announcements about place openings, lost items, goods for sale, or laborers looking for work. The descriptions were typically brief and included a means to get in touch with the poster. Typically, respondents to a notice approached the proprietor of the establishment where the noticed was posted. He or she would tell them how to get in touch with the author of the notice. Sometimes posters left either direct contact information such as an address where they lodged or indirect contact information such as the name/address of a local artisan or professional who could serve as an intermediary. This anonymized the hiring process. People were more likely than ever to hire someone they’d never met or enter the employ of a proprietor they’d never heard of. As migrants flocked to early modern cities, this anonymized method of finding employment became increasingly common and complex. Migrants were unlikely to have helpful contacts in their new city. This was a common complaint among city-dwellers. In June 1740, the London Magazine ran an editorial proposing an “intelligence office for marriage.” That is, my friends, a dating service. If Londoners were willing to use anonymized dating services, it is unsurprising that systemized and anonymized forms of place- and servant-hunting also became more popular.
Sarah: This was also true of colonial American cities. New York, Boston and Philadelphia were North America’s largest cities but in the eighteenth century they were tiny (demographically and geographically) in comparison to those in Europe. But they were growing more rapidly than their European counterparts and had very high population densities. In Philadelphia, for example, the average population density was an incredibly high 50,000 per square mile in 1800. This is close to the population density of Manhattan TODAY. So even though American cities were small, they were urban in character and their inhabitants had been behaviorally urbanized by 1700.
Unlike in England, in the American colonies migrants to the cities were usually far from home and knew no one. Until 1815, Philadelphia was the primary destination of immigrants to the North American continent. But the port cities of Boston and New York were also growing rapidly. In this sense, these small American cities were even more cosmopolitan than European cities where migrants tended to have friends or family a short distance outside the city limits. We also can’t forget that there were several sources of unfree or exploitative labor: ships full of European redemptioners under indentures, as well as pools of enslaved blacks for sale or short-term hire, and recently freed blacks looking for work.
Marissa: These fluctuating and rootless populations prevented the development of personal networks and made it hard for workers to find work and for employers to fill vacancies. Philadelphian Elizabeth Drinker and her sister Mary Sandwith reportedly struggled to find and keep “good” servants. In Elizabeth’s diary, she excitedly noted the arrival of English ships carrying fresh waves of servants, and described Mary’s trips to the wharf hunting for men and women to fill their constant vacancies. So I’ve found that even though American colonial cities were much smaller and had this very different relationship to the Atlantic economy than did the metropole, their demands for employment agencies were quite similar.
Sarah: Systematized employment streams initially took the form of intelligence offices. These “offices of intelligence” served many purposes at once. They are arguably the grandfathers of classified intelligence networks, newspaper journalism, advertising agencies, employment agencies and several other things. Intelligence offices initially produced publications which spread intelligence around the city. But they were also brick-and-mortar points of contact where readers could follow up leads that were printed in their bulletins. Intelligence offices became popular in London and other major British cities (Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh) at the beginning of the 18th century. They began appearing in the British colonies (Philadelphia, Boston, Charleston and New York) after 1750 but there were very few of them in British America until the 1780s. This was also the time when American newspapers reached maturity. This accident of timing may have shaped American intelligence agencies in compelling ways. While European offices functioned independently alongside newspapers for decades, American intelligence offices were more likely to be contained within the newspaper industry.
Marissa: The first intelligence office was established in London in 1637 by John Innys. Innys secured (from monarch Charles I) a 41-year patent which gave him sole rights to “enter the names of all masters and mistresses, and servants and of things lost and found, etc, within the cities of London and Westminster, and three miles distant.” So basically he planned to keep a register of employers seeking workers, servants seeking places, and items which were lost and found around the city. Londoners who sought servants, employment, or a lost watch, could visit the Office of Intelligence and consult its register of leads. It is entirely unclear how Innys’s intelligence office made money. He likely sold access to the register in some way, perhaps subscriptions. He may have even sold space in the register but it is unclear if anyone would have been willing to pay for that service at this point.
Sarah: Toward the end of the 1600s, intelligence offices more commonly published an intelligence bulletin which were pasted on posts and notice boards, and circulated among the city’s residents by hand. This marriage between intelligence office registers and newspaper print may have begun in Germany sometime around the 1670s. Wilhelm Baron von Schroder consulted Emperor Leopold about the establishment of an “intelligence chamber” which would publish intelligence bulletins in the style of newspapers every 7-14 days. His proposal is the first record we have of an intelligence office designed to circulate publications. But Von Schroder was a famed mercantilist who envied the growing British mercantile juggernaut. He often related reports from London notables to Emperor Leopold so English economic practices could be implemented in Vienna. It’s likely that he borrowed this idea from ordinary Londoners who were already circulating their registers in an informal capacity. We just haven’t uncovered any record of their activities.
Marissa: For several decades (approximately 1680-1720), the London intelligence industry circulated publications separately from the newspaper media. There was very little cross-over until the 1720s, when intelligence offices began to purchase space in London newspapers. This move made sense. Why incur the burdensome costs of printing your own bulletin when the local newspapers were willing to sell space to whoever was willing to pay. This move saved London intelligence offices oodles of money. It also made them dependent on the newspaper medium.
By midcentury, this made intelligence offices particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion. There were several competing intelligence offices operating in London which had been advertising the labor of their clients in London newspapers since the 1720s. In attempts to edge out their competitors, they began rebranding as register offices and statute halls, all vying for different but overlapping target markets.
Sarah: The first mention of a “Register Office” in London newspapers dates to 1742. It advertises the opening of the General Register Office within the piazza of the Royal Exchange. The adv gives us an idea of how these agencies were reinventing themselves. It reads:
Whatever is necessary for the Publick to be informed of, or enquire after… SUCH as Bank, or other Notes, Watches, or any other Goods, Lost, Stolen, or Found, many of which are never heard of by the Owners, for Want of those who find them, or to whom they are offered to Sale or Pawn, knowing who they belong to; which is Registered at this Office may be informed Gratis And Warnings may be sent to all Goldsmiths, Watchmakers, and Pawnbrokers.
Also Estates, Annuities, Offices, Merchandise etc may be Sold by being Registered. Since this Office being at the Exchange, it may become a Kind of Market, for the Intercourse of such as have Ready Money Purchase (and those that will Sell Cheap).
Marissa: It continues…
Persons wanting to Lett or Borrow Money on Mortgage, or other Security, may have their Business negotiated at this Office; and Secrecy may be depended on in the Affair… Farms, Houses, Lodgings, etc. may be Lett, since any Person may be informed what is Registered, and take such as suits each one’s Conveniency; and when Lett, it is hoped the Landlords will give Notice to the Office, to prevent needless Enquiry.
So you can see this General Register Office is trying to give readers an idea of the possible services they can provide. They wanted to focus more on bringing parties together for transactions or other services revolving around making, spending, or recovering lost money.
Sarah: Once intelligence offices and register offices started advertising in newspapers regularly, we, as historians, can learn more about them. Thankfully, many newspapers were saved for posterity and conveniently digitized. Random 18th-century bulletins by any number of ordinary intelligence businesses? Not so much. The General Register Office, for example, charged one shilling for clients to register something. This included a notice being sent out to local establishments to be on the lookout for stolen or lost items. They charged another shilling if the client wanted their item advertised in the local newspaper. This tells us that they have some special working relationships with the local papers because for ordinary folks, a classified advertisements could cost 3 shillings on its own. So they were probably able to negotiate super low rates with newspapers since their clients would then have a vested interest in reading that paper above all others.
The General Register Office was open for business from 10 am to 4 pm. Before and after hours, clients were encouraged to go to the Amsterdam Coffee-house where the proprietor would take register entries and advertisements while the office was closed. This was probably another negotiated deal. The Amsterdam Coffee-house likely did this labor for free while the register office was closed because it brought a steady stream of customers.
Marissa: Register offices did not always take this form. Each agency carved out their own niche within the intelligence business. The choice of name: intelligence office, register office, or statute hall, was a marketing choice rather than a strict division of services. The first reference to a “Statute Hall” in London newspapers dates to 1763. It announces the opening of “Statute Hall by Tottenham Court Road.” This establishment pretty obviously captured a different market than register offices:
The Proprietors… give Notice, they shall for the future open their Hall two Days in every Week from Eleven to Two O’Clock, for hiring servants and apprentices, every Monday for Women and Girls only, and every Thursday for Men and Boys only. Several Tradesmen want Apprentices on each Day.
Sarah: This was, obviously, a very different venture than the register office we mentioned earlier. Statute Halls typically made money by charging employers for the convenience of being able to show up at the statute hall at a given time and be guaranteed a servant for hire. It eliminated the inconvenience of going servant-hunting (like Elizabeth Drinker and her sister were forced to do in Philadelphia). Statute halls also (supposedly) did some of the footwork that would otherwise need to be performed by employers every time they took on a new servant: checking their references, negotiating a minimum wage, and ensuring their basic suitability for employment. This theoretically assured employers that they weren’t unwittingly hiring disabled, pregnant, or criminal servants. I said “supposedly” and “theoretically” because Statute halls were often accused of failing to perform basic vetting, letting all kinds of transgressive characters fall through the cracks. Heaven forbid. Statute halls also, controversially, made money by charging the servants for the service of setting them up with an employer. This practice became incredibly problematic and we’ll come back to that soon.
Marissa: Competing agencies, Intelligence offices, register offices, and statute halls, took to attacking each other through newspaper advertisements in the 1760s. The owner of the London Statute Hall in Church lane placed the following announcement in the Public Advertiser on May 27, 1767 letting Londoners know why he started his new venture:
to extricate the Public from the many Impositions practised by Keepers of Intelligence Offices, and to open a public Market for this Purpose, was the chief Motive that introduced me at a very great Expence to build these two Halls,in order that every Master and Mistress might at a very small Expence provide themselves with proper Servants… This soon induced several of the Office Keepers to change their Motto from REGISTER OFFICE to STATUTE-HALLS, which are now to numerous in this Metropolis, therefore both Parties would do well to consider that more Places than one opened at one Time, is contrary to their own Interest which I have often repeated in my former Advertisements, and believe now is visibly perceived to be too true by great Numbers.
Sarah: In London, this hostile environment was fodder for satire by London engravers like John Goldar, Philip Dawe, and Thomas Rowlandson. We’ll put some of these etchings in the blog post for you to see. All three types of agencies were accused of swindling their clients. The agency depicted in Goldar’s etching bears the name “Cheatall’s Statute Hall.” Employment agencies were known to charge their unemployed clients an entire day’s wages (2 shillings) at a time when the majority of working people spent ⅓ of their income on bread and an additional ⅙ of their income on basic lodging. The expense would have been justified if their services guaranteed employment but this was far from the case.
In most cities around the Atlantic rim, the economies were labor-rich. On July 12, 1764, a writer for the London Gazzetteer and New Daily Advertiser estimated that intelligence offices drew 50, 60, or 70 workers per day (and took their shillings) while very few of them were selected by an employer on any given day. Several agencies were criticized for manufacturing false characters for their clients who were otherwise undesirable. They were also accused of failing to vet the employers who subscribed to their services even though this was one of their primary functions. Workers were unable to trust that the agency would not connect them with abusive or miserly employers.
Marissa: Sir John and Henry Fielding abandoned the private employment agency business after it became clear that market forces rendered them either unsuccessful or exploitative. The Fieldings and their partner Saunders Welch established the Universal Register Office in London in 1749. The competitive and exploitative natures of the business made the Fieldings incredibly unhappy so in 1761, they left the business to their clerk and got out of the intelligence game. The Fieldings later proposed a bill in Parliament which sought to regulate intelligence offices. As is often the case, the bill was initially proposed because the powerful and wealthy were fed up with the state of affairs (cynical enough for you?!?! lol):
We hear frequent complaints of the dissatisfied temper and covetousness of servants, and the exorbitant wages they usually demand. Now, it seems very probable, that a proper attention to their characters [references] would made a great alteration in that particular: it would render them more modest in their demands, and would teach them to look rather for services, in which they could foresee a likelihood to continue long, than one where they may get the most plunder… It is well known that many of the evils generally complained of , have been occasioned by the bad practices carried on by Register Offices.
Sarah: The bill goes on to describe their worst offense:
The practice in the common Register Offices of deceiving poor deluded female servants, particularly claims attention, as it is a grand source of infinite mischief… those offices can any time procure them places, their behaviour to their employers becomes intolerable, and they are discharged without character [references], they again have recourse to the register office, and with the help of a false character, get into another.
Marissa: Don’t worry everyone, they are also slightly concerned with the welfare of these female servants. This part of the bill is the most bizarre to me:
…but as this cannot long be carried on when their faces become familiar, they from fatal necessity become a prey to their own passions, the pimp, and the debauchee, and this is one of the chief causes which throw so many abandoned women on the town… If register offices are necessary (as perhaps they are) they ought to be under some better regulation; and not to be left at liberty to impose a profligate woman, or a villain, upon a family, where one or the other may prove the destruction of it.
That’s right folks. Parliament was worried that the awful practices of register offices were not only a bane to wealthy employers but that they also made female servants into prostitutes. Now there was some truth to this in the sense that poor and resourceless women often went in and out of the sex trade to make ends meet. But somehow I feel like Parliament was not all that concerned about the fate of these women. The bill emphasizes that their fate is burdensome on the town and that they destroyed the families who employed them. There was very little concern about how sex work shaped their lives. (It makes me grumpy how few people cared about the actual feelings of poor women in the 18th century)
Sarah: Criticisms toward employment agencies do not appear to have hindered the industry but as the century progressed, servants were increasingly likely to invest in their own classified advertisements looking for open places. Classified advertisements emerged as an alternative to what people were beginning to perceive as ineffective and exploitative employment agencies. But just as anonymized employment networks continued to function next to old, personal networks, register offices and statute halls continued to function alongside classified ads placed by servants themselves. This was partly due to the economics. By 1790, the cost to run a single ad for a single day ranged from 3s 6d to 5s 6d depending on length and placement. Considering the average laborer earned 40-50s annually, placing an ad would have cost the equivalent of three to four weeks’ wages. Granted, statute halls also took servants’ money without finding them places. But since an advertisement was more expensive than a day at the statute hall, many servants still gambled on the statute hall.
Marissa: Our listeners might be wondering. What on earth does any of this have to do with wet nursing? Good question. I came across this little slice of history when I was collecting classified ads placed for and by wet nurses in London and Philadelphia. It turns out, wet nurses were among the droves of unskilled workers who flocked to cities looking for work. I want to know how this discrete group of people were impacted by these labor changes because frankly, their stories are compelling, largely untold and important to understanding how we perceive women today.
So something I want our listeners to understand is that wet nurses didn’t come to the city already planning on being a wet nurse. More often than not, they migrated to the city in search of a domestic service positions. But somewhere along the way, they became pregnant out of wedlock, abandoned by their lovers, and made the smart choice to leverage their assets (aka their boobs). Many times their infants passed away but just as often, wet nurses surrendered their children to poor relief agencies. So how did someone who was newish to the city, with few family or friends, find a family who had an infant in need of breast milk who could afford the wages, room and board of a wet-nurse? See, these people would NOT have been in the same circles.
Sarah: One way was by placing classified ads. The first wet-nurse ad in London was placed in the 1730s. Wet-nursing advertisements increased in the as the century progressed. By the 1790s, some dailies were publishing several wet-nurse advertisement every day. The exponential growth of employment agencies and job classifieds between 1750 and 1815 suggests that personal networks were no longer effective for everyone in these places. But buying ad space was a considerable investment. As we mentioned earlier, this could cost several weeks wages… for someone who was obviously unemployed. Wet-nurses probably sought other avenues of procuring a place, and householders likely sought other avenues of procuring wet-nurses before they placed classified advertisements.
Marissa: Employment agencies were an alternative strategy for these women. I came across many register office ads that basically listed a bunch of people looking for places: day laborers, footmen, scullery maids, nurses, clerks, WET NURSES. I also noticed that many of those people looking for places did NOT find jobs after the first advertisement ran… because the same clients appear again and again. And so I wanted to know how women chose whether they’d place an advertisement on their own or whether they’d subscribe to a register office.
Some of the problems with register offices that we mentioned earlier– their dishonesty and exploitation– suggest that employment agencies offered wet nurses in particular some important advantages. Many of these wet nurses were poor, unmarried, uneducated, unskilled, and what many of their contemporaries considered to be “fallen women.” So employment agencies could theoretically rehabilitate these women into “suitable” servants. They had the resources to fabricate good references for them. These references could feign familiarity with a wet nurse and tell some sob story about how she was a respectable married woman whose husband went to sea or something similar.
Sarah: Wet nurses actually did this. We know this because Marissa has read many petitions written by women surrendering their children to the Foundling Hospital in London. These women told stories to the hospital designed to cultivate sympathy toward their situation so they’d take their child. But everyone required references and the hospital sent fact-checkers to see each reference in person to ask whether the applicant was a “suitable” object of charity. There are many petitions which are refuted by references and there are even more references who admit their complicity in hiding the woman’s past transgressions so she can obtain employment. This was a common occurrence. (It’s kind of like faking a resume– fun stat… 58% per cent of employers today have caught people lying on resumes).
The eighteenth-century public were aware of this part of the trade. Physician George Armstrong lamented in 1783: “a good wet nurse is not always to be had, especially in or near great cities, where so many of them are given to drinking and other vices, and the worst of them will fall upon means of securing a good character.” Families were particularly nervous about this possibility for deception because this woman was being hired to breastfeed their child. If she was a “loose woman” she could have venereal disease. She could be immoral, an alcoholic, unfit to be around children. Or even worse, she could be mentally ill. One physician and opponent to the wet nurse trade wrote: “When wet-nurses go mad, the tiny bodies of innocent infants pay for it.”
Marissa: This anxiety about deception is critical to my arguments about the ways that wet-nurses and their bodies were treated. Householders were told (by physicians and authors of advice manuals) to demand sobriety, honesty, discretion, conscientiousness, patience, good humor, and friendliness in a wet-nurse. They were urged to avoid women who were unchaste, gossipy, anxious, flighty, passionate, or melancholy. They were told to avoid unmarried women, women who suffered from chronic want, or women married to abusive husbands. These details about a woman’s personality, lifestyle, and family situation were easy to uncover through social networks when prospective nurses were introduced to householders by mutual acquaintances. For centuries, London families with resources had inquired among friends, neighbors and business contacts when searching for servants. Workers in London inquired among their social and familial networks for open places. But how exactly could prospective employers ascertain this intel if their prospective wet nurse was a stranger to them?
There were several factors that householders took into account when evaluating women for employment as a wet-nurse. But their impression of a prospective wet-nurse’s character was increasingly influenced by an inspection of her body. So as an alternative to social knowledge, householders sought information elsewhere. With the help of medical manuals and conduct literature, householders read wet-nurses’ bodies for signs of their health, character and their past behavior. So yes, they had them strip down so that they could inspect their bodies and gather clues about her character or her behavior based on how her body looked.
And if you want to know more, you have to read my dissertation or perhaps buy the book that I will make out of my dissertation in a year or two.. K bye.
The Laws of Masters and Servants Considered: With Observations on a Bill …
By John Huntingford