Abstract: Networking from the Inside-Out: Socializing with "The Boys" from the Office

Jocelyn Wills


My presentation explores the ways in which nineteenth-century office workers employed business networks to make social connections. Focusing on Michael J. Boyle and his lower middle-class friends who worked for a dry goods firm during the 1880s, my inquiry reveals that salaried employees often cultivated friendships among co-workers and employers not only to "get ahead" in business, but also to gain access to social clubs, people they "wanted to know," and women they hoped to court. As more affluent friends introduced Boyle and other strivers into larger social networks, they learned both the rituals associated with male consumption and the etiquette required for social mobility and middle-class respectability. Although Boyle indulged himself in fantasies about climbing the "figurative ladder" of economic "success," and "aired" his "plans" for achieving financial independence, his actions expose the fact that he was much more interested in spending than in saving his hard-earned money. When he approached his employers about salary increases, he did so not to prop up his bank account, but rather to have more disposable income to dine at fancy restaurants with "the boys" from the office, to purchase wedding gifts and "various other incidentals," and to order "lilacs from Chicago" for the upper middle-class women he hoped to win over. Several of his friends shared these propensities, consistently choosing the "enjoyments of the festive scene" over business success. As a result, the world Boyle and his friends inhabited can enhance our understanding of business history in several important ways, including the role of formal and informal marketing networks, and the ways in which Americans created intricate webs to expand opportunities for both sellers and buyers.