Abstract: Central Intelligence Agencies: Negotiating Market Transactions and the Commodification of Labor in the Nineteenth-Century City

Brian P. Luskey


In this paper, I analyze the cultural significance of the "intelligence office" or labor agency, an ubiquitous urban institution in the nineteenth century, in which agents, workers, and employers negotiated market transactions, the commodification of labor, and the legitimacy of capitalism as an organizing principle of American society. For a fee, intelligence office proprietors would connect prospective employees with employers. The meaning of this transaction was at the core of the cultural problem that the intelligence office posed, and for many urban Americans this economic deal was unjust. While the agent pursued profits like brokers and other intermediaries in the economy, he appeared to prey upon friendless immigrants and helpless women. Newspapermen, elite women looking for servants, and ministers criticized the intelligence agent because he represented for them the worst excesses of capitalism. The presence of these scapegoats made the acceptance of the economic transactions and social relations of capitalism, based as they were on the commodification of waged workers, more palatable to many Americans.