‘I Would Prefer Not To’: The Origins of the White Collar Worker

Before the Civil War, the clerk was “a small but unusual phenomenon.” By the end of the 19th century, clerical workers were a social force to be reckoned with. This is the story of their rise.

Nikil Saval | Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace | Doubleday | April 2014 | 31 minutes (8,529 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from the book Cubed, by Nikil Saval, as recommended by Longreads contributor Dana Snitzky.

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I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils…

—Theodore Roethke, “Dolor”

The torn coat sleeve to the table. The steel pen to the ink. Write! Write! Be it truth or fable. Words! Words! Clerks never think.

—Benjamin Browne Foster, Down East Diary (1849)

They labored in poorly lit, smoky single rooms, attached to merchants and lawyers, to insurance concerns and banks. They had sharp penmanship and bad eyes, extravagant clothes but shrunken, unused bodies, backs cramped from poor posture, fingers callused by constant writing. When they were not thin, angular, and sallow, they were ruddy and soft; their paunches sagged onto their thighs.

Clerks were once a rare subject in literature. Their lives were considered unworthy of comment, their workplaces hemmed in and small, their work indescribably dull. And yet one of the greatest of short stories is about a clerk. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), Herman Melville, who had become famous for writing memoirs and novels about spectacular sea voyages to exotic islands—gaining a readership he eventually lost with that strange, long book about a whaling voyage—decided to turn inward, to the snug, suffocating world of the office. The titanic hunt for the white whale was exchanged for the hunt for the right-sized pen. And for finding the right position to sit at a desk: “If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk, then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back.”

Melville himself had worked as a clerk for a merchant in Albany before he—as Ishmael put it—took to the ship. He knew from the inside the peculiar emptiness that office work could often have, its atmosphere of purposeless labor and dead-endedness. Even in Moby-Dick he speaks of the thousands in Manhattan who idle along the Battery, lost in “sea-reverie,” avoiding returning to their work lives “pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Appropriately, the few windows in the Bartleby office look out onto nothing but more walls. “On one end,” the unnamed narrator writes, the window faced “the white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light shaft, penetrating the building from top to bottom.” And on the other side, “an unobstructed view of a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade.” This wall, the narrator adds, wryly, “required no spyglass to bring out its lurking beauties, but, for the benefit of all near-sighted spectators, was pushed to within ten feet of my window panes.” On two sides, then, two walls: one, the white wall of the light shaft; the other, a soot-black brick wall hemming in vision and light. A walled-in window: a room with no view.

But the office of “Bartleby,” like the Pequod of Ishmael and Ahab, is also a place of male bonding, cheery with camaraderie and bonhomie. The narrator, a lawyer, initially employs three clerks with absurd nicknames—Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut—that he uses affectionately. Each of them behaves with exact predictability the same way every day; for example, Turkey, an old man, always ceases to get work done after his noontime dinner, which he takes with an inordinate quantity of wine, causing his face to “blaze like a grate full of Christmas coals.” But the boss is too kind to do anything Trump-like, and the distempered workers never challenge their boss.

The entire order dissolves, however, when a sudden increase in the volume of business pushes the narrator into hiring a new scrivener—the eponymous Bartleby. He arrives looking “pallidly neat, pitiably respectable,” and, mysteriously enough, “incurably forlorn.” The narrator gives him a desk next to a window, but like the other windows it offers little to look at, “having originally afforded a lateral view of certain grimy backyards and bricks, but which, owing to subsequent erections, commanded at present no view at all, though,” the narrator concedes, “it gave some light.”

At first Bartleby works diligently, his thinness inversely proportional to his ravenousness for writing: “As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had he been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on, silently, palely, mechanically.” The trouble comes when this routine is interrupted. The lawyer-narrator calls Bartleby in for assistance in comparing two copies of a document. After outlining the duty, the narrator is stunned by Bartleby’s infamous reply—“I would prefer not to.” Repeating the maddening phrase at the narrator’s every spluttering attempt to get him to work, Bartleby plunges the calm predictability of the office into thunderous irregularity. In the end, the lawyer, baffled by Bartleby’s intransigence, his passive resistance, is forced to leave his office altogether; Bartleby himself is taken off to prison, where, bereft of his sustenance of documents, he starves to death.

What “Bartleby” means has been a subject of endless debate. Office workers have always taken it to be a mirror of their condition, with Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” an encapsulation of how the office reduces all titanic conflicts to petty grievances and simmering resentments. But in 1853, when the story was written, the term “office”—and the sort of labor that was performed there—had nowhere near the universal significance it has now. In those tense years before the Civil War, clerks were a small but unusual phenomenon, a subject of anxious scrutiny; their workplaces were at once significant centers of American business and breeding grounds for a kind of work that nobody recognized as work. Clerks were a kind of worker that seemed, like Bartleby, at once harmless and ominous. “Bartleby” was evidence that the office had just begun to blot its inky mark on the consciousness of the world.

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When does the office begin? It’s a question without an easy answer. One can associate the origins with the beginning of paperwork itself—until recently, the most common mental association with office work (think of the derogatory phrase “paper pusher”). In other words, since the invention of writing and the corresponding ability to keep records in a systematic manner, there have always been places that resemble offices: monasteries, libraries, scholars’ studies. Banking furnished an especially large amount of paperwork; the Uffizi, an incomparable gallery of Renaissance art in Florence, was also one of the first office buildings—the bookkeeping offices of the Medici family’s groundbreaking financial operations. Clerks, too, have existed for ages, many of them unclinching themselves from their desks to become quite famous: from Samuel Pepys, the British government diarist who reported on the gossipy world of seventeenth-century England, to Alexander Hamilton, who had cut his teeth as a merchants’ clerk before he became the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States; Benjamin Franklin, paragon of pecuniary restraint and bourgeois self-abnegation, started out as a dry goods clerk in 1727. Perhaps some of the tediousness of Franklin’s own writing was honed in the conditions of his first job: since clerks have had the opportunity to keep diaries, they have bemoaned the sheer boredom of their tasks—the endless copying, the awkward postures, the meaninglessness of their work. When not doing writing for the job, clerks have cultivated the habit of writing about the job—or literally around it, as in the case of some infamous marginalia from medieval scribes. “Writing is excessive drudgery,” one such jotting reads. “It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.” “Oh, my hand,” goes another—even though writing out that sentence would have only magnified the problem it described.

The notion of the office as the quintessential location of alienated work, or simple drudgery, is far from the etymological root of the word. “Office” itself comes from the Latin for “duty.” One of the more famous philosophical works of Cicero, long-winded scold of the latter days of the Roman Republic, is a treatise called De officiis, usually translated as “Of Duty” or “On Duty,” though it might just as well be “Of Office.” For Cicero’s understanding of duty isn’t far from our contemporary sense of “holding office” or the “office of the president”: “office” as connoting a specific set of responsibilities. For Cicero, “office” was what was proper to you, what fitted you as your natural duty. This, too, seems far from any understanding of the office as workplace: few people have ever considered office work to be natural, proper, or fitting.

To find the emergence of the office in history—the workplace that prefigures the offices of today—one has to look at a peculiar confluence of new sorts of buildings, deep economic changes, as well as (most slippery of all) new kinds of feelings and mass awareness of one another among particular strata of the workforce. Industrialization in Britain and America was producing more and more administrative work, and alongside it a need for a rational approach to managing accounts, bills, ledgers: in short, paperwork. Rising to take these positions were clerks, who, looking around, began to see themselves growing in number, and to feel themselves as belonging vaguely to a special group. One finds the evolution of the office coinciding, then, with a change in the position of the clerks themselves—a new restiveness on their part, a new sense of power. They were not quite sure of themselves, but they were no longer isolated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, clerks and their workplaces begin to appear with a new regularity in the literature and journalism. “Bartleby,” with its simultaneously assertive and retiring protagonist, nicely captures this ambivalence in the early world of the office.

What “Bartleby” also captured, as other descriptions of office life at the time did, was the sense that office work was unnatural. In a world in which shipping and farming, building and assembling, were the order of work, the early clerical worker didn’t seem to fit. The office clerk in America at the high noon of the nineteenth century was a curious creature, an unfamiliar figure, an inexplicable phenomenon. Even by 1880, less than 5 percent of the total workforce, or 186,000 people, was in the clerical profession, but in cities, where the nation’s commentariat was concentrated (who themselves tended to work in office-like places), clerks had become the fastest-growing population.11 In some heavily mercantile cities, such as New York, they had already become ubiquitous: the 1855 census recorded clerks as the city’s third largest occupational group, just behind servants and laborers.

For many, this was a terrible development. Nothing about clerical labor was congenial to the way most Americans thought of work. Clerks didn’t work the land, lay railroad tracks, make ammunitions in factories, let alone hide away in a cabin by a small pond to raise beans and live deep. Unlike farming or factory work, office work didn’t produce anything. At best, it seemed to reproduce things. Clerks copied endlessly, bookkeepers added up numbers to create more numbers, and insurance men literally made more paper. For the tobacco farmer or miner, it barely constituted work at all. He (and at that point it was invariably a he) was a parasite on the work of others, who literally did the heavy lifting. Thus the bodies of real workers were sinewy, tanned by the relentless sun or blackened by smokestack soot; the bodies of clerks were slim, almost feminine in their untested delicacy.

The lively (and unscrupulous) American press occasionally took time to level invectives against the clerk. “We venture the assertion that there is not a more dependent or subservient set of men in this country than are the genteel, dry goods clerks in this and other large cities,” the editors of the American Whig Review held. Meanwhile, the American Phrenological Journal had stronger advice for young men facing the prospect of a clerical career. “Be men, therefore, and with true courage and manliness dash into the wilderness with your axe and make an opening for the sunlight and for an independent home.” Vanity Fair had the strongest language of all: clerks were “vain, mean, selfish, greedy, sensual and sly, talkative and cowardly” and spent all their minimal strength attempting to dress better than “real men who did real work.” Somehow it was never questioned that journalism, also conducted in offices and with pen and paper, constituted “real work.”

Clerks’ attire was a glaring target for the barbs of the press, since the very concept of business attire (not to speak of business casual) came into being with the mass appearance of clerks in American cities. “In the counting-room and the office,” wrote Samuel Wells, the author of a “manual of republican etiquette” from 1856, “gentlemen wear frock coats or sack coats. They need not be of very fine material, and should not be of any garish pattern.” Other fashion advisers pointed to a whole host of “business coats,” “business surtouts,” and “business paletots,” which you could find at new stores like Brooks Brothers. Working-class Americans would be seen in straw hats or green blouses; what distinguished the clerk was his collar: usually bleached an immaculate white and starched into an imposing stiffness. But collared business shirts were expensive, so stores catering to the business customer began to sell collars by themselves, half a dozen collars running to under half of what a cheap shirt would cost. The white collar, detachable and yet an essential status marker, was the perfect symbol of the pseudo-genteel, dual nature of office work.

Brooks Brothers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Brooks Brothers. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The self-regarding clerk in his white collar became a stock subject of satire. Edgar Allan Poe, in his story “The Man of the Crowd,” saw the “tribe of clerks” as being composed entirely of overdressed dandies, imitating aristocratic styles already several years old:

There were the junior clerks of flash houses—young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. Setting aside a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed deskism for want of a better word, the manner of these persons seemed to me an exact fac-simile of what had been the perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They wore the cast-off graces of the gentry;—and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class.

The division of the upper clerks of staunch firms, or of the “steady old fellows,” it was not possible to mistake. These were known by their coats and pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably, with cravats and waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or gaiters.—They all had slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end. I observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both hands, and wore watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient pattern. Theirs was the affectation of respectability;—if indeed there be an affectation so honorable.

It fell to the poet Walt Whitman, bard of the masculine professions—the farmer, the builder, even the loafer and layabout—to establish that clerking was antithetical to manly American democracy. In a journalistic piece called “Broadway,” the poet turns up his nose at a “jaunty” group of “down-town clerks” sauntering down the great avenue toward their cramped rooms in lower Manhattan. “A slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest.” Again, what distinguished the clerks was their dandyishness, “trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts—sometimes, just now, of extraordinary patterns, as if overrun with bugs!—tight pantaloons, straps, which seem coming little into fashion again, startling cravats, and hair all soaked and ‘slickery’ with sickening oils.” But their sparkling clothes merely hid the truth of their bodies: “What wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked!”

But the fantasy of exposing the clerk to his own inadequacy only concealed a deeper fear about the changing world of American business. Under the pressures of growing industrialization in the North of the United States, the Jeffersonian democracy of farmers was heading toward the same fate as the buffalo. More important, the old eighteenth-century world of businessmen who were also craftsmen—white-collar types who worked with their hands—began to suffer a slow decline as merchants and their groups of clerks started to exploit their superior knowledge of distant markets, and industries began to require more and more bookkeepers to maintain their ever more complicated accounts. New York was a case in point: by 1818, a packet line had begun to carry goods from the East River docks and Liverpool (which had one of the highest concentrations of clerks in England); by 1825, the completion of the Erie Canal had connected the city with western New York; importers in lower Manhattan had set up shop to get goods from markets in the Caribbean and Asia as well as from Europe. The growth of manufacturing led to myriad urban retail and wholesale establishments, which in turn required people to do the paperwork. The “Basis of Prosperity,” Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine held in 1839, lay in “the vast modern increase of the facilities for diffusing and obtaining full and correct information on everything pertaining to trade.” The people who handled this were clerks. Cities began to acquire ever more sizable numbers of clerks ambling down their broad avenues for men like Whitman to gawk at and fret over. By 1860, 25 percent of Philadelphians were working in nonmanual occupations; in the brand-new city of San Francisco it was already 36 percent; in Boston it was nearly 40 percent. Not all of these were clerks exactly, but the trend was clear: more and more people had ceased to work with their hands and were now working with their heads. The journals of opinion in the United States might have hated the “wretched, spindling” office worker, but the hatred refracted the intense ambivalence over the nature of business—and the possibility that clerks might be not an aberration but the future.

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Despite the furor over their aggressive unmanliness, clerks, and with them the office, crept silently into the world of nineteenth-century America. Moral philosophers were mostly preoccupied with the clang of industrialization and its satanic mills, and most regarded as negligible the barely audible scratch of pens across ledgers and receipts that characterized the new world of clerical work. It was only a “dry, husky business,” as the narrator of “Bartleby” had it. Yet the expansion of the clerking force heralded a change as great as that of industry, and the humble clerk in the white collar would be as significant a figure as the factory hand in blue.

Part of what made the office so unworthy of notice was the fact that clerks in the mid-nineteenth century seemed to do business in exactly the same way as clerks decades before, in colonial and revolutionary America. The typical structure of a merchants’ firm was still the partnership of two or three people, often in the same family, with the venture secured by a contract. The standard method of accounting, double-entry bookkeeping, had been developed in Italy in the fourteenth century. And the offices, too, resembled the banking and merchants’ offices of Renaissance Italy—called in America, as they had been in the Renaissance, countinghouses. In these office spaces, a door from the street would open into darkness, perhaps graced by a single window streaked with dust from the outside, glommed over on the inside with soot from the potbellied stove in the middle of the room. A high rolltop desk was where one of the partners sat; a higher desk in the corner was reserved for his small staff of clerks. The partners themselves were often absent from this scene, making personal calls to conduct their business transactions while the clerks stayed behind and copied documents, endlessly. The other signal figure of this office was the bookkeeper: the patient, sallow-faced pen-and-ink man regarding the ledger carefully through his pince-nez, whose chief source of pride was his ability to conjure the sum of a column of numbers quickly and efficiently.

A former employee of the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company in Pittsburgh in 1869, whose office had all of six men (three of them partners, three others doing bookkeeping and clerical work), recalled the office life at the time some seventy years later: “There were no telephones, stenographers, or typewriters, and business was done face to face. A man would travel hundreds of miles to buy a carload of iron (15 tons), rather than write because he could see all the iron manufacturers, and felt he could more than save his expenses in getting the lowest price. There were probably more callers at our office than there are today . . . Business hours began at seven in the morning and six in the evening was recognized as quitting time only if the day’s work was finished, and it was not unusual to continue work after supper.” Even if the workday was long, the pace of business was almost enviably slow, as one partner’s account of a “busy” day had it. “To rise early in the morning, to get breakfast, to go down town to the counting house of the firm, to open and read letters—to go out and do some business, either at the Custom house, bank or elsewhere, until twelve, then to take a lunch and glass of wine at Delmonico’s; or a few raw oysters at Downing’s; to sign checks and attend to the finances until half past one . . . to return to the counting house, and remain until time to go to dinner, and in the old time, when such things as ‘packet nights’ existed [when packet ships came in], to stay down town until ten or eleven at night, and then go home and go to bed.”

jones-and-laughlin

Jones and Laughlin Steel Company. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

 

The offices themselves were crowded and characterized above all by face-to-face interactions, as was industry in general. One exemplary office, of a New York commission house that sold western and southern produce, was only twenty-five square feet in size but managed to house four partners and six clerical workers, all men. One was an office manager; two clerks handled the major accounts, while a fourth handled the smaller ones. A fifth acted as secretary to the senior partner; a sixth was a receiving and delivery clerk who worked “from early in the morning until eight to ten o’clock at night” handling freight and storage. There was a group of salesmen who went in and out of the office to arrange transactions and a collector who processed bills and handled bank deposits.

But the surface continuities in the lives of office clerks masked a deeper, momentous series of changes in the structure of office work itself, which subtly began to reshape American cities and the working worlds they contained.

One such change was the increasing specialization of business. The previous century had seen a host of mercantile activities united in one figure, the merchant, who was “exporter, wholesaler, importer, retailer, shipowner, banker and insurer” all at once (in the words of the business historian Alfred Chandler). By mid-century, all these tasks were divided. There were banks to handle the money, insurance firms to minimize risk, and shippers to carry goods, while merchants themselves ceased to handle multiple products, focusing on just one or two, and only on one aspect of the business (importing or exporting), while the day-to-day business was increasingly being handled by subordinate staff. In retail, the growth of manufacturing meant that the goods being sold (clothes, say) were made off-site, and stores simply took on the function of selling—again, with a host of underlings to record the day’s transactions. In other words, manual work was being separated from nonmanual work.

The separation of tasks, and the making of things from their selling, crystallized in the development of offices with clerks, sometimes completely separated from the dirty, noisy, and smelly world of “real work.” In city directories of the time, one notices for the first time companies that have factories in or near a city, with a separate listing for an office in what increasingly began to be called, and exclusively in American English, “downtown” (the first usage is recorded in 1836). At the same time, the customary word “countinghouse” began to give way to the word “office.” Even where administrative offices remained on factory property, they were often separated from the shop floor itself so that factory managers and clerks had entrances to their places of work physically distinct from that of the manual workers (and the office entrances were often prettier as well, distinguished by lintels and columns framing the doorway, rather than the warehouse atmosphere of the factory). Office buildings began to acquire their own architectural idiom, a “Greek Revival” style replete with Doric pilasters and large display windows for retail. It was a sign that the work being done within was noble, dignified, and important.

Another, otherwise invisible but significant distinction adhered to the split of income between manual and nonmanual workers. Most married skilled laborers barely earned enough off one job to support their families, with the average running to about $500 a year. Meanwhile, Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine estimated that the average annual expenses of a family of four, living frugally, amounted to $1,500—three times the average income of a manual laborer. While clerks usually faced dismal incomes their first year clerking, with an entry-level salary of about $50, their earning power could rise well above the low ceiling of a manual laborer’s salary, and there are plenty of reports of clerks in their late twenties and early thirties, often single men, earning as much as $1,500 or $2,000. Above all, the income difference lay in how these incomes, whether small or large, were paid out. Manual workers received hourly or piece-rate wages, while nonmanual workers earned annual salaries. What this meant for white-collar workers, in an American economy beset by intense fluctuation in prices and frequent financial panics, was a measure of stability that manual workers never enjoyed. A small shift in power had begun to take place. If people who “worked with their hands” still assumed their possession of the world of things, clerical workers, those working “with their heads,” were now at the heart of capitalism’s growing world of administration and direction—close to power, if not exactly in control of it.

And so unlike “solidarity,” the key word of the European industrial labor movement that had made its way to England and America, the ethic that began to take hold among clerks was that of “self-improvement.” Clerical workers were uprooted from the close-knit world of families and farms, where knowledge was passed down from father to son. Other clerks were merely their competition; they had no one to rely on but themselves. “The man who does not at least propose to himself to be better this year than he was last must be very good or bad indeed,” wrote the merchant’s clerk Edward Tailer in his diary entry on New Year’s Day 1850. There is, he continued, “no such thing as a stationary point in human endeavors; he who is not worse to day than he was yesterday is better; and he who is not better is worse.”

Self-education became a key component separating the office world from the rest of the world of work. Entire schools—a parallel academy for clerks—sprang up in cities everywhere to assist young people with the new knowledge they needed to succeed in business. The loftiest of the heads in the countinghouses of America was the bookkeeper, who was the closest to true knowledge in the white-collar workplace. Accounting courses proliferated—usually $25 a pop, a sum that only more stable families could afford—and some offered to “watch over your work as you advance step by step, from book to book, entry to entry, and transaction to transaction.” Accounting books like S. W. Crittenden’s Elementary Treatise on Book-Keeping became widely known, thanks to their promise to “bring the subject within the grasp of any boy or girl.” Though copy clerks had to acquire their own special skills in these schools, such as the ability to write thirty words in sixty seconds—the measure of good penmanship—bookkeepers were the source of fundamental truth in American business. The numbers, after all, had to add up. So pervasive was the bookkeeping impulse in American life that Thoreau made it a chief object of parody in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, where, in order to argue the superiority of his frugal, simplified life, he ostentatiously added up his food expenses in a ledger.

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Unlike the anonymous, wide, deep, air-conditioned warrens that most workers around the world experience as their offices today, the early offices of the Western world—particularly those of England and America—were intimate, almost suffocatingly cozy spheres, characterized by unctuous male bonding between business partners and their clerks. Because of the close proximity of clerks to their bosses, they were sometimes considered by their bosses, as the great historian of the workplace Harry Braverman had it, “assistant manager, retainer, confidant, management trainee, and prospective son-in-law.” Or, as Hunt’s Merchants’ Magazine had it, the merchant’s clerk “is to business what the wife is to the order and success of the home—the genius that gives form and fashion to the materials for prosperity which are furnished by another”—a comparison that could hardly give comfort to those who worried about the “femininity” of American clerical work. At the same time, the closeness belied a deeply competitive streak in the American clerk. Unlike their brothers in the factory, who had begun to see organizing on the shop floors as a way to counter the foul moods and arbitrary whims of their bosses, clerks saw themselves as potential bosses. What appeared to be an exemplary “middle-class” patience, a willingness to endure anything in order to rise to the top, went hand in hand with utter impatience. Indeed, their whininess was proverbial. As America’s finest moralist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his canonical essay “Self-Reliance”: “If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.” But the complaint derived from the proximity to power that a seat in an office guaranteed them. Virtually no space separated clerks from their superiors; between their position and that of the partners of their firms lay only time.

Edward Tailer, a New York merchant’s clerk who kept a steady diary throughout his years in business, gives a vivid picture of the working world of clerks. He sounds the proper, Uriah Heep-ish tone for the early white-collar worker as well: humility masking greed, whininess masking confidence. The son of a rich lawyer, in 1848, at age eighteen, Tailer managed, largely through the efforts of his well-connected family, to procure a clerkship in the merchants’ firm of Little, Alden & Co., which was an importer of British, French, and German dry goods. Aside from the partners (Mr. Little and Mr. Alden), the small dark office consisted of a single bookkeeper, Frederick Haynes. When not delivering bills to dry goods houses owing money to Little, Alden & Co. or depositing said money in the bank, Tailer was employed in an endless monotony of filing receipts. In one entry he writes with satisfaction that his day consisted of filing three hundred freight and receipt bills. Highly self-conscious of the stereotypes of spindling weakness associated with members of his profession, Tailer became an exhausting propagandist for regular exercise and wrote several newspaper articles praising the gym he went to. In a piece for the New-York Enquirer in 1848, he wrote, “It is particularly recommended to those of sedentary habits, to undergo the training which is to be found [on Crosby near Bleecker].” As if responding to the satire of people like Walt Whitman, Tailer argued that after regular exercise “narrow and contracted chests are soon turned into broad and expansive ones, and the puny limbs of him who is not accustomed to exercise are soon changed into well developed and finely formed ones, and he imperceptibly finds himself re-established in health and strength.” The idea of a manly, ripped clerk has its contemporary counterpart in the health-crazed office workers of today, whose biceps stiffen and shift like packs through their shirtsleeves, though they rarely lift more than boxes of files or a planter of ferns at their workplace. The office—and the fears of physical degradation it engendered—might in fact have given birth to our modern idea of the gym.

At the same time, the obscurity of the poorly lit office drives him to complain about the worsening of his eyesight: “My eyes felt, when the labors of the day were finished, as if I was to become blind, a cloud appeared to hover over them, which prevented my seeing distinctly those minute objects which would be presented for admission to be portrayed upon the retina. The reason which I assigned to account for this singular occurrence was that they had been strained and sorely tried by the miserable light which finds its way into our counting room.” The darkening of Tailer’s vision might have had less to do with the light and more to do with complaints about his position. Earlier in the same diary entry, Tailer complains that he has yet to hear from his boss over a request he had made, three days earlier, for a raise: “The answer which I have been daily expecting from Mr Alden, whether he will furnish me to draw for one hundred fifty or not, has not yet made its appearance. It strikes me most forcibly as exhibiting a mean trait of character, that a man, who has made thousands of dollars, should refuse the paltry sum to a faithful and hard working clerk, which would make him feel happy and independent, and inwardly bless the bountiful hand which could thus place him above want.” Tailer’s request was for a yearly salary of $150—a raise of $100 from his $50 starting salary, after less than a year of employment. Such was the salary he deserved, he argued, and moreover it was the only salary that would allow him to support himself and relieve his (wealthy) father of the burden. Alden’s response at the time, measured and calm, was that Tailer was asking too much for his position: Boston clerks, he argued, received only $50 their first year, with a $50 raise every subsequent year.

With Alden stalling on the raise month after month, Tailer’s list of affronts began to multiply. In several entries he testifies to the strain on his eyesight. He also complains about the manual labor he is often forced to perform—an affront to his status as a clerk who works with his head: “It often occurs to me, that it is time Little Alden & Co had a young man to carry out bundles and parcels of pattern cards, as I have now been with them over a year, and it is not creditable to myself that this kind of awkward and clumsy work should still devolve upon me.” Tailer, a “young man” himself, didn’t mean that he wanted someone younger; rather, he wanted a porter to do the work, which he would eventually get. The distinction that Tailer drew between clerking and portering was both class based and race based; most porters tended to be immigrants or minorities of some stripe—at least 66 percent in New York City, according to the 1855 census, while 6 percent were African American—giving the work an especially low cast in the minds of clerks. The whiteness of their collars was about more than just attire.

Tailer’s worries over his position were common in a clerking world where the distance between junior clerk and partner was seen as both enormous and easily surmountable. No other profession was so status conscious and anxiety-driven and yet also so straightforward seeming. No matter how dull their work might be at any given moment, there was little doubt that clerks saw themselves, and were seen by their bosses, as apprentice managers—businessmen in training. Few people thought they would languish as clerks, in the way that it became proverbial to imagine people spending their lives in a cubicle, or how for decades becoming a secretary was the highest position a woman office worker could aspire to. Part of the prestige of clerking lay in the vagueness of the job description. The nature of the dry goods business meant that clerks often spent time in the stores where their goods were sold, acting as salesmen and having to be personable to customers. In other words, the duties of clerks were vast enough to allow them to be tasked with anything, which meant that so much of their work depended upon so many unmeasurable factors besides a clerk’s productivity: his attitude, good manners, even his suitability as a future husband for the boss’s daughter. A good clerk besieged his bosses’ emotions the way he did customers—flattering them to the point of obsequiousness, until the bosses were assured that they had a good man on their hands. These personal abilities were part of the skill set of a clerk—something we know today as office politics—and though they couldn’t be notched on a résumé, they were the secret of the supposed illustriousness of business life. The work might dehumanize you, but whatever part of you that remained human was your key to moving up in the job.

This was also the reason clerks felt superior to manual laborers. Young men entering a factory job had no illusions about running the factory, which is why a few of them began to join the nascent American labor movement. But clerks were different from people who “worked with their hands,” and they knew it—a consciousness that Tailer registers when he declares the “awkward and clumsy work” of a porter unworthy of him. Young men who wanted to get into business knew they had to clerk, and they also knew that clerks could and often did eventually become partners in their firms. “Time alone will suffice to place him in the same situation as those his illustrious predecessors now hold!” Tailer wrote in one entry, loftily referring to himself in the third person. But though patience was the signal virtue of clerking—to write on, as Bartleby did, “silently, palely, mechanically”—impatience was its most signal marker. From the shop floor, the top of the Pittsburgh steel mill looked far off indeed. But in the six-person office, it was right next to you, in the demystified person of the fat and mutton-chopped figure asleep at the rolltop desk, ringed with faint wisps of cigar smoke.

Tailer was momentarily gratified when he at last received the raise he asked for—including the potential of a $50 bonus. Then the firm’s profits began to skyrocket, and Tailer, in full possession of the details of these profits (after all, he was the one depositing and withdrawing the checks), began once again to feel agitated over his compensation, the mere hundreds he received compared with the “thousands” pocketed by Alden. Two and a half years later, Tailer found a position with another firm as a salesman; upon leaving, he was told by Alden that his “greatest failing was too strong an anxiety to force myself ahead.” Yet the anxiety paid off. Only a few years later, at age twenty-five, Tailer would count himself a merchant; later in life he would have the money to travel extensively in Cuba and western Europe, and he had meetings with the Mormon pioneer Brigham Young, President Franklin Pierce, and Pope Pius IX.

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The simultaneous impatience and obsequiousness of a figure like Tailer would become a leitmotif of white-collar workers in the century and a half since the clerk first rose to prominence. As such, offices became highly ambiguous spaces in the fast-developing world of American capitalism. Were clerks part of the growing industrial working class, replacing the artisans and small farmers of the old-world economy? Or were they merely stopping points on the way to becoming part of the “ruling class”? The answer appears to be that they were somewhere uncomfortably in between: not “middle class” exactly, or not yet—the phrase was never used, and the concept hadn’t yet sprung up among nineteenth-century Americans—but somehow neither of the working class nor of the elite holders of capital. White-collar workers rarely knew where they were, whom they should identify with. It was an enduring dilemma, rooted in what might be called a class unconsciousness, that would characterize the world of the office worker until the present day.

In one sense, early office workers were definitely part of an elite. For one thing, immigrants were virtually barred from becoming clerks; overt racism of course played a role, but more pertinent was the fact that clerking required an exceptional command of English, and specifically business English, which meant that it was comparatively easier for immigrants to slip into factories or other kinds of manual labor that hardly required speaking or writing at all. In their pay structure, appearance, and style of dress, early office workers seemed to be elite as well. Clerks were salaried, not waged; they often dressed to the nines; and they had the thin wrists and creamily pale complexions of aristocrats unused to hard labor, in a country born in a revolt against an aristocracy.

Politically and culturally, clerks began to form their own caste institutions. While most recoiled from the brutal, backslapping world of mid-century urban politics—with its ward bosses, gangsters, canned soapbox speeches, and blatant corruption, all of which clerks like Tailer dismissed as “electioneering”—they developed their own, semi-genteel spaces in which to pursue political and intellectual questions. They joined debating societies and subscription libraries, forming the core constituencies of lyceums and athenaeums all over the country’s cities. The Mercantile Library Association, a private library formed in 1820, counted among its members a sizable number of clerks, Tailer among them, who argued in his diary that the “cherished institution” was “destined to perform a great deal of infinite good for some of the more unenlightened members of the mercantile community.” This was all part of the dogma of “self-improvement” that young clerks could count as their collective contribution to society.

It also signified a commitment to gentility and honor, when many in the media were contending that young effete clerks were ruining the morals of their customers in retail stores, or, worse, dissipating in brothels and public houses. Some clerks, like Tailer, went out of their way to affirm their own virtuousness. Tramping around the city, as he often did for work and pleasure alike, Tailer would come across scenes like one recorded in his diary, where Broadway “litterally [sic] swarmed with the most depraved of women.” But many other clerks succumbed, with considerably less sanctimony, to the “vices” offered in abundance by the antebellum city. Clerks’ barrooms—called “porterhouses”—often became the preserve of low-level clerks who were about to set out for a “spree” with prostitutes. Magazines with titles like Whip, Rake, and Flash, as well as a host of erotic novels, offered gossip about especially enterprising clerks who exhibited impressive powers of seduction—tales that might have helped clerks manage their own identities in the face of repeated charges against their manliness.

The one collective movement that clerks engaged in might have turned into a confrontation, in which the status of clerks might have been posed in the open and contested (if not resolved), but clerks made every effort to keep it civil and friendly to their employers, leaving things ambiguous—where, it seemed, clerks wanted them to be. This was their movement to regulate the closing hours of the retail stores where their firms sold goods. In the early nineteenth century, these stores had arbitrary hours, and merchants and retailers were thereby able to keep their clerks at the stores late into the night, usually until 10:00—preventing them from the few hours of leisure available to them, in which they could have gone to the gym or the library. By 1841, enough of them had banded together to form a demand to close the stores significantly earlier, at 8:00 p.m. But these demands were couched in the countinghouse language of friendship and bonhomie: they sought a “solicitation” of merchants’ goodwill and argued that a few hours of rest would make more “willingly devoted servants” in the store. They earned the enmity of a few owners and newspaper editors, who muttered imprecations over the moral lassitude of brothel-going clerks in one breath and more deep-seated fears over a labor revolt in another. The clerks responded agilely, arguing in petitions and letters that they merely wanted to devote themselves to study; as for a labor revolt, they had no plans of striking, instead hoping to win over their owners by softly voiced requests.

The powerfully influential editor of the New-York Tribune, Horace Greeley, welcomed the movement as a sign that the clerks were at last moving toward becoming true citizens of the Republic. “The ignorance, emptiness and foppery of Clerks have been the theme of popular ridicule long enough,” he wrote in his first editorial. But if the satire were true, he argued, then naturally “means should be taken to improve [the clerks’] condition.” After the passage of the early closing petition in the clerks’ association, the editor wrote again, urging the adoption of the act, arguing that with their new freedom the clerks could take advantage of moral education: “Under the old system the time of the Clerks was so incessantly occupied as to deprive them entirely of that leisure for mental, moral and social improvement which should be enjoyed by every one just entering upon the duties and responsibilities of active life.” He hoped ardently that the newly “emancipated” clerks would take it upon themselves to enjoy their new liberty in hallowed sanctuaries, like the “New-York Lyceum” and other debating and education societies.

But most merchants continued to resist. It didn’t help that the clerks were making requests rather than demands and forming associations rather than unions. A strike would have utterly crippled the commercial life of New York; a petition merely made most of the merchants chuckle. The clerks were determined, however, to minimize any similarities between their meek and courteous requests for more time and the violent means usually employed by striking manual laborers. When unsigned members of the Committee of the Dry Goods Clerks wrote in to the Tribune to threaten a particular merchant who refused to close early (“you had better look out for your glass if you want to save them [sic] from being smashed”), the chairman of the early-closing committee went out of his way to disassociate his body from the more radical sentiments, claiming the letter as sabotage by “some malicious person” attempting to “thwart our measures.” Despite several larger associations, and even a concession to forming an alliance with the Industrial Congress of trade unions, by 1852 the early-closing movement had run out of steam, dissipating in failure.

Did the clerks want to win? Or, in winning, would they have compromised their own position—as junior businessmen rather than workers? By their own lights, clerks were not a threat to anything. In the varied world of American work, they portrayed themselves as baby workers, always on the verge of tears but stunned into passivity at the offer of a symbolic pacifier. “Bartleby,” which exploited the ambiguous nature of clerical work that Melville had known firsthand, is a story of the only kind of resistance a clerk could offer: passive resistance. “You will not?” the fatherly narrator asks. “I prefer not,” Bartleby corrects—stumping his boss by substituting a mild preference for a stubborn desire. One clerk put their situation thus:

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.

Years before the rise of the clerk, American economists had worried over a growing distinction between producing classes, who did all the work, and consuming classes, who simply enjoyed the products. But from the 1830s to the 1850s, when clerks conducted their inauspicious rise into the lower frequencies of the American imagination, the discourse shifted away from this distinction toward discussing the possibility of a “harmony of interests” between employers and workers. Prompted most obviously by the threats from socialists in Europe and America—people like Charles Fourier and Karl Marx, Robert Owen and Henry George—who proclaimed an irreconcilable conflict between capital and labor, these writers were also describing, perhaps inadvertently, the world that the office world was giving harbor to: one where workers were in harmony with their employers. To be sure, the office, from its earliest days, was rich in antagonisms, petty grievances, and outright hostility. But in the mind of the typical office worker, there never appeared to be a contradiction in pursuing his own interests alongside those of his employer. The Civil War would puncture the national harmony engendered in American workplaces—especially the southern cotton fields that were the most unequal workplaces of all. But the office, which grew to prominence in the years that followed, expanding to rows upon rows of desks and engulfing American cities in skyscrapers, admitted little of the strife clamoring outside its walls. With reformers promising a utopia of one kind, the office promised another, which would prove more enduring: an endless, placid shaking of hands.

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From the book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by Nikil Saval. Copyright  © 2014 Nikil Saval. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.