The Uneven Rewards of Professional Labor: Wealth and Income in the Chicago Professions, 1870-1920

By Goebel, Thomas | Journal of Social History, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Uneven Rewards of Professional Labor: Wealth and Income in the Chicago Professions, 1870-1920


Goebel, Thomas, Journal of Social History


In 1879, the Illinois State Medical Society formed a Special Committee on Medical Education, headed by the prominent Chicago physician Ephraim Ingals, to study the conditions of medical training and practice in Illinois. In its report, the committee was especially disheartened by the low levels of compensation received by physicians. "The excess of numbers in the profession," the members complained, "occasions so small a subdivision of the field of practice, as to render the emoluments that flow from it inadequate to the maintenance of the rank that should reward a cultivated profession for the skilled bestowal of its blessings to society."(1) Far from unique, this objection to the allegedly insufficient rewards of professional practice abounds in the observations of professionals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Chicago and elsewhere.(2) In contrast to most historical interpretations about the rise of expert occupations during this period,(3) many professionals were far less certain about the economic viability of independent professional practice. Yet if late 19th-century American professionals were indeed primarily concerned with acquiring market power through monopolization strategies and the demarcation of occupational 'jurisdictions,' as many authors have argued,(4) the wealth and income of members of the learned professions provide an important measure of their success.

Given the discrepancies between contemporary complaints about professional poverty and modern accounts, it is surprising how little is known about the economic parameters of professional practices in this crucial time period in the evolution of the modern professions in the United States. The proliferation of historical and sociological studies on professions and professionalization has largely concentrated on changes in professional knowledge, on the modernization of standards of training and licensure, on professional associations, and on the experiences of some renowned practitioners.(5) Little attention has been paid to the social history of the professions; data on the social backgrounds of American professionals, on their educational attainments and strategies, on their career patterns, and on their economic fortunes are sorely lacking. Part of this deficit is due to the problems in collecting quantitative information on large numbers of independent practitioners. It also points to a scholarly preoccupation with issues of professionalization that has overlooked the more mundane aspects of professional existence. In addition, historical studies of social mobility also offer little data on the professions. In their emphasis on mobility between broadly-defined clusters of occupations, they have almost completely neglected the role played by intra-occupational systems of stratification and mobility. While their approach might be sufficient for the 19th century, the evolution of modern white-collar and professional vocations, with their often complex internal hierarchies, calls for a finer-grained approach to issues of inequality and mobility.(6) What is evident is that the impressionistic and scattered nature of the information on professional incomes available in the existing literature can hardly sustain arguments about their social positions.

That not all professionals achieved equal levels of economic success is not surprising; what is remarkable, however, is the extent to which economic inequality within professional occupations exceeded those in other occupations at the time. By focusing on the experiences of Chicago lawyers, physicians, and engineers between 1870 and 1920 - three of the largest and most important American expert occupations that also differed widely in their market positions and career tracks -, one can obtain a clearer picture of the financial dynamics of professional work. These three occupations differed in important aspects. Engineering, especially, was a newcomer still attempting to establish its professional credentials, a fact that engineers were acutely aware of. …

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