Employment Ads Tell Tales of Changing Social Norms
A century ago, the following words appeared regularly in help-wanted advertisements: respectable, sober, Protestant, gentlemanly, refined, industrious, obliging, reliable, trustworthy.
Today, these words are popular: go-getter, hard-charger, team player, self-starter, multitasker, goal-oriented, results-oriented, win-oriented, 24/7.
Classified ads, both help-wanted and position-seeking notices, tell the history of America from an offbeat perspective -- the pithy commercial dialogue of ordinary people. People writing their own ad copy seeking jobs speak volumes in telegraphic prose. "Physician, 30, financially embarrassed," confessed a man seeking a medical position in 1905, "desires employment commercially or professionally."
Looking for a housekeeping job in 1905, Mrs. J. L. W. Cummings of Albany, N.Y., wrote: "middle aged lady of prepossessing appearance, from the city, through reverses, in a Christian widower's or bachelor's home with one or two domestics; no triflers or agents need reply." Another woman, looking for work in 1870, summed up her tragedy in 16 words: "Wanted -- a situation by a respectable married woman as wet nurse, having lost her infant lately."
A public accountant's office in 1935 asked interested candidates: "Answer in your own handwriting, giving religion, age, height, education." Today, a help-wanted ad for an office manager says, "Applicant must be well versed in these PC applications and programs: Lotus 1-2-3; QuickBooks Pro; TimeSlips; MS-Access; MS-Excel; MS-Word; Correl WordPerfect, e-mail using MS-Outlook Express."
Classified ads, sometimes referred to as "the people's marketplace," are believed to be the oldest form of advertising. In Pompeii, a stone tablet announced: "To Rent -- shops with flowers over them, fine upper chamber and a house in the Arrius Pullis block, owned by Gnaeus Marius."
In the 17th century, when a ship arrived in port with cargo, the captain quickly posted a "publick notice" in the local gazette describing what he had for sale. By the 19th century, classified ads were an essential element of most newspapers, offering shelter, jobs, business opportunities, announcements and notices of items lost and found.
"Strayed or Stolen from my residence," announced T.S. Terry in the Daily Memphis Avalanche in 1879, "a s'rawberry spotted cow, white face, both ears forked. Anyone returning her to me will be liberally rewarded."
Old classified ads are quaint, but they also show the evolution of America's racial and social consciousness. In the early 20th century, New York newspapers carried ads that included such phrases as "Neat colored girl"; "Refined girl, white"; German preferred"; "Girl, light colored"; "White only"; "Protestant family." Race, religion and age were all considered legitimate requirements for poorly paid positions as housekeepers, chambermaids and stenographers.
By 1935, when Morton J. A. McDonald published his reference book, "Getting and Keeping Classified Advertising," such descriptions were beginning to dwindle. "Most newspapers in America prohibit mention of the phrase 'no Filipinos' or 'Mohammedans' in their advertising," wrote Mr. McDonald, manager of classified advertising at the Oakland, Calif., Tribune. "On the other hand, an inclusive restriction such as 'Mohammedans only,' by expressing a preference, implies a compliment and therefore is never rejected."
Today, it is prohibited, except in rare cases, to specify gender, age, appearance, race or religion in classified ads in general newspapers. But you can read between the lines: "Must like loud music and having fun" probably won't appeal to the typical middle-aged job seeker.
When newspapers were smaller and published less frequently, the classified ads provided popular leisure reading even for those who had nothing to buy or sell. The miscellaneous ads told short stories of everyday dramas: In 1853, Edward Hughes announced in the Newark Daily Advertiser, "Ten dollars reward will be given for the detection of the author of an anonymous letter containing indecent scurilities, reflecting on my character, on Friday last. It was directed to Miss Rosanna Rourke, No. 53 Liberty St."
But the very qualities that make classified advertising so entertaining also make it fertile ground for mischief. The classifieds are, for example, perfect for bait-and-switch techniques, promising one item while having in stock only another, more expensive one. Work at home, will employ and teach business, demands for cash bonds -- all were scrutinized by Mr. McDonald's gimlet eye. "Every man out of work," he wrote, "every woman thrown suddenly on her own resources, turns to the help wanted ads and is exposed to that swarm of vultures which always hangs on the fringe of business."
This ad, however, published in 1870, sounds sincere -- and as antiquated as a horse-drawn carriage. "Wanted -- situation as coachman; would like to get some place where he could be steady; wages not so much an object; willing to make himself generally useful."