Archival Follies, Beginning the "Businessman", Now in Actual Work

The Labor of Organizing Capitalists

Or, Who Did The Work of Making the Business Lobby?

#BizManBook Research Note #1

A photo of mainly men and some women seated at banquet tables, set for the desert or coffee course, dressed in business suits; black and white image.
Source: Peter Schawang, Minnesota Association of Commercial Secretaries 25th Anniversary, St. Paul., February 12, 1944, photograph, b&w, 8″ x 10″, February 12, 1944, AV1982.85.1, Minnesota Historical Society, https://collections.mnhs.org/cms/display?irn=10692948.

In the early 20th century, a new kind of man appeared in America. “[L]ooking pleasant but worried,” he scurries toward his downtown office, arriving by 8:30am to be attend to a packed schedule of meetings, calls, and endless paperwork, working through breakfast, lunch, dinner, and not infrequently well beyond. He’s an avid golfer, but those hours on the links aren’t leisure, they’re a good walk ruined by networking. His blood pressure is high, his hair is going prematurely grey, perhaps because others claim his hours; he has “about as much time to call his own as a member of the fire department.”1 Often the sole salaried employee of his organization, he wears as many hats as the haberdasher can supply: he serves as “a business man, an organizer, a diplomat, a strategist, a mixer, and an all-around man of versatile ability.”2

So who was this new, harried man – and what was his business?

As he was described and then theorized in the business print culture of the 1910s and 1920s, this busy, multifarious, and frankly tired figure was the “commercial secretary.” Sometimes also styled the “commercial executive” – when he was feeling presumptuous – his work was to shape the business men of an American city into a purposeful, effective force. His labor was organizing capitalists.

The commercial secretary made his home in an institution that first became pervasive in Gilded Age America: the local commercial association, aka the chamber of commerce, board of trade, or business league. The keystone administrator of a nonprofit organization that served the cause of for-profit enterprise, the commercial secretary was an employee whose task was to nurture and guide entrepreneurs and executives – and translate their aggregate economic power into civic improvement and public infrastructure.

The commercial secretary occupies an interesting niche in the modernizing United States. Within the paradigm of the “managerial revolution,” he must be figured a partisan for professional, systematized, and scientific control of corporate bodies, against the amateurish whims of individual owners. From another perspective, however, the commercial secretary was simply another creature of the era’s powerful proprietary capitalists, like a railroad lawyer or “friendly” politician. But unlike those figures, commercial secretaries claimed to represent the business men of a given locality, as a whole class, not particular enterprises or even industries. As such they might be properly characterized as a kind of community organizer, or class activist, engaged in the slow, boring political work of building “business solidarity.”3

Understanding themselves to be agents of capital-p “Progress,” commercial secretaries thought of civic improvement as their special purview. As they took steps to professionalize in the early 20th-century, they did so in the name of something greater than the sum of their members private interests: they claimed to work for the good of the whole city. (And it was usually the urban core they focused on – like many other Progressives, they saw cities as the key problem of the present, and the path to the future). You can glimpse something of the grandiosity of secretaries’ ambitions in the courses of study and reading lists they designed to train the rising generation: organizational design and commercial law, macro, micro, and political economics, business statistics, and accounting, to start; and then for more advanced students, education in corporate finance, scientific management, urban governance, immigration reform, military science, European and American history, the classics, socialism, marketing, advertising, and psychology – all to be supplemented with the daily newspaper, and founded on practical experience.4

So far in my research for my new project, The Beginnings of the “Businessman,” I have been working with institutional collections – the records and publications of the New York Chamber of Commerce, or the Boston Board of Trade, etc. Stepping into these records means entering a world authored, almost entirely, by commercial secretaries. Secretaries took the meeting minutes, summarized committee findings, and then drafted, edited, and ordered the printing and layout of institutional reports and periodicals. They also did a significant share of the backroom backslapping and conversational cajoling that brought members together in the first place (traces of which shows up in correspondence). And though commercial associations’ power and legitimacy were always understood to reside in their members, it was through the secretary that that they found collective expression.

In that sense, we might usefully consider commercial secretaries to be the “stage managers” in the managerial revolution. Offstage organizers who kept things moving while emotionally overwrought players rushed in and out of the wings to take action. And indeed, in some organizations, they often refused (or were denied) the limelight. George Wilson, the longtime secretary of the New York Chamber of Commerce, oversaw his organizations’ transformation from provincial mercantile club to industrial and financial lobbying giant; but after he died, a member who stood to hail his memory still failed to recognize his portrait hanging on the wall of the meeting room he was in.5 Most commercial secretaries claimed more space than Wilson – but even those who modeled themselves on his shy propriety left a mark, in the record, shaping how business men were represented to the world, and to themselves.

As this post suggests, commercial secretaries have caught my attention. A prolix group of liminal figures, they are interesting as indexes of how apolitical “progressivism” mixed with the celebration of business “civilization” in the bubbling stew of modern urban capitalist America. But they are also something of a distraction. While they occasionally weighed in on how “business men” should get involved in civic affairs, and offered useful some delineation of what that character of a “business man” looked like, they mostly shied away from any close examination of their meal tickets. Instead, they preferred to look inward, and consider what qualities and capacities they and their organizations needed to make the world safe for vigorous local capitalist enterprise. But as I get back into the habit of writing through my sources, I thought it would be fitting to go meta, and give some attention to the men (and some women) who sent the fancy business banquet invites, and organized the diners.


1. John E. Northway, “The Secretary in Action,” in Proceedings: Fifth Annual Meeting of the National Association of Commercial Organization Secretaries (Worcester, MA: National Association of Commercial Organization Secretaries, 1919), 96-98, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100438129

2. “The Profession of Secretary,” Nation’s Business (December 16, 1912), v1 n5, p.12, https://digital.hagley.org/NB_12_1912#page/12/mode/1up

3. Edward D. Jones, “The University and the Secretary,” in Commercial Organizations, Their Function, Operation and Service, ed. William George Bruce (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1920), 420, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006566591

4. Roland B. Woodward, “The Most Helpful Secretarial Literature,” in Commercial Organizations, Their Function, Operation and Service, ed. William George Bruce (Milwaukee, WI: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1920), 396–407, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006566591; Paul T. Cherington, “The Secretarial Field for College Graduates,” The Nation’s Business, (August 15, 1913) v1, n14, pp. 7, https://archive.org/details/sim_nations-business_1913-08-15_1_14/page/7/mode/1up

5. Chris Mead, The Magicians of Main Street: America and Its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945 (Oakton, Virginia: John Cruger Press, 2014), 167.