is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

City of Clerks: Office and Sales Workers in Philadelphia, 1870-1920

Author(s):Bjelopera, Jerome P.
Reviewer(s):Mandell, Nikki

Published by EH.NET (December 2005)

Jerome P. Bjelopera, City of Clerks: Office and Sales Workers in Philadelphia, 1870-1920. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005. ix + 208 pp. $22 (paperback), ISBN: 0-252-07227-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nikki Mandell, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

City of Clerks examines a class of workers that is inherently difficult to study, the exploding office and sales workforce of the second industrial revolution. Jerome Bjelopera clearly understands this. His opening chapter grapples with what he calls the “clerical revolution.” This revolution encompassed the entry of women into the clerical workforce, the incomplete feminization of clerical occupations, proletarianization of clerical work in the form of increased routinization and mechanization, and diminishing opportunities for upward mobility. None of this is entirely new terrain for historians. Instead, City of Clerks seeks to move the historical conversation beyond the workplace to a consideration of clerical workers “anchor[ed] … firmly within the context of the industrial metropolis” (p. 3). Bjelopera reminds readers that the long-standing fascination with the manufacturing sector misrepresents the industrializing era: the white collar workforce grew more rapidly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than did the blue collar workforce. Thus, “understanding the work lives, residential patterns, and leisure experiences of the clerical workers between 1870 and 1920 helps us to more clearly conceptualize the maturation of the industrial order and provides insight into the initial stage of post-industrial society” (p. 7).

After the opening chapter’s national overview, City of Clerks turns to a case study of the clerical sector in Philadelphia. The author relies almost exclusively on the records of two firms, the Pierce Business School, which claimed to be the nation’s largest business school in the early decades of the twentieth century, and Strawbridge and Clothiers, one of Philadelphia’s leading department stores. Chapter 2 explores the process of finding a white collar job, opportunities for upward mobility and gendered commonalities among clerical work across the office and sales sectors. Chapter 3 pursues this theme more intently, finding that the curriculum at Pierce School “helped forge a new white-collar identity” that encompassed a gendered construction of the clerical world (p. 77).

The second half of the book turns to the clerical world outside the workplace. Chapter 4 chronicles a shift in clerical leisure activities from pre-1890s single-sex fraternal and benefit associations to post-1890s mixed-sex sports and night life, including baseball, bicycling, vaudeville, amusement parks and travel vacations. This mixed-sex leisure drew clerks into a world of middle class consumption. Chapter 5 argues that these leisure activities contributed to a gendered and racially prescribed clerical identity. In an interesting analysis of clerks’ proclivity for minstrelsy, Bjelopera concludes that clerks transferred occupational values (of loyalty, industriousness, thrift, temperance) into a personal ethic that described who they were as white middle class men and women. The final chapter follows the rise of a clerical identity into clerks’ homes and neighborhoods. Using city directories to plot residential patterns, Bjelopera finds that clerks joined an outward migration to increasingly homogeneous furnished-room districts. By 1920 experiences outside the workplace were as important in shaping clerical identity as were experiences in the office and on the sales floor.

This is a commendable effort that shines a spotlight on a feature of industrial modernization that has been neglected for too long. Readers unfamiliar with the growing literature on white collar workers will find a broadly inclusive and engaging portrait of the clerical world. Trade and services, not manufacturing, replaced agriculture as the dominant economic activity in the modern economy. This portrait of clerking life in Philadelphia is rich in detail. Accounts of typewriters’ poems, bicycle club outings and minstrel shows are particularly noteworthy, as is the author’s attention to race as an element of a white collar ethic. City of Clerks reminds us of the complex white collar world and that clerks in this new middle class were among the first to incorporate consumption into their occupational identity.

Despite this potential, City of Clerks does not live up to its promise. Although the book opens with accounts of the many fracture lines within the clerking occupations and describes clerking as an occupation in transition, succeeding chapters treat the clerical workforce as an unchanging and largely homogeneous group. The reader learns virtually nothing about differences between office and sales clerks, between in-store and traveling salesmen, between office clerks working in small offices and large pools. After noting that the “most significant growth” in white-collar occupations during the first decade of the twentieth century occurred in the professions, and that this was due to the “swelling of managerial jobs,” the book fails to address the relationship between managers and workers in the white collar world (p. 27).

This inattention to managerial-clerical relations is particularly troubling since the book relies almost exclusively on sources created by or presumably with the approval of management. City of Clerks finds that clerks “created a rich group life away from the workplace,” without questioning who shaped that group life. Stating that “[b]oth salespeople and managers were active in the same clubs formed by the Strawbridge and Clothier workforce” misses an essential point (p. 113). The evidence suggests that these club activities occurred within company (or school) welfare work programs. Recent studies demonstrate that management purposefully shaped welfare work to promote the gendered middle class work ethic that City of Clerks finds expressed in clerks’ “rich group life.” Did clerks actually imbibe this ethic? What proportion actually participated in these welfare work activities?

This is not the only area that begs for deeper inquiry and greater skepticism about the sources. The author asserts that “[i]nstead of … a clear division between male management and female workforce [there was] some degree of role blurring and gender intermingling in the office and on selling floors.” Yet, beyond men’s numerical majority, the evidence presented does more to prove gender segmentation than to support the contention that there was “role blurring and gender intermingling.” In fact, one of the strengths of City of Clerks lies in its attention to the ways in which gender segmentation shaped all facets of the clerical world.

Finally, this reader wishes that City of Clerks had explored its central thesis more thoroughly. Returning to the opening assertion that understanding the clerical world is central to understanding the “maturation of the industrial order,” this book ends with the curious statement that clerks “approximated the lives of twenty-first century Americans more closely than did their industrial-era working-class counterparts: at work they managed information; at home they were consumers. In these regards, they were postmodern in the modern age” (p. 161). This places City of Clerks among a new literature exploring the ways that consumer culture permeated all aspects of public and private life in the twentieth century. Bjelopera challenges his readers to revision the typical worker of the industrial era as an information handler with an identity grounded in consumption, not a production worker with an identity grounded in class or ethnicity. If clerking was an integral part of the emerging modern industrial order as the author asserts, then clerks were, by definition, modern not postmodern.

Nikki Mandell is the author of The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare, 1890-1930 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). She is currently engaged in research for a case study of business women in Milwaukee, 1880-1930.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII