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This Month in Business History

Founding of the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Thomas J. O'Halloran, photographer. Bureau of Labor Statistics- Artist working on a consumer price index chart. 1971. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Bureau Labor Statistics (BLS) is one of the oldest statistical agencies of the United States government and predates the agency—the Department of Labor—that it is now part of. Over its history, the Bureau has published data on prices, wages and compensation, workplace accidents, strikes and lockouts, as well as many reports on women’s employment in particular industries, safety problems in some of the more dangerous sectors, and many other topics.

The genesis for a federal labor statistics agency begins in 1869/1870 when Massachusetts became the first state to create a bureau of statistics. The push for the federal government to collect labor-oriented data began in earnest in 1883 when the Senate Committee on Education & Labor held hearings around the country on the state on labor strife and living/working conditions. Many witnesses recommended the government create a federal agency to investigate labor matters and in particular, collect data. Advocates included Carroll D. Wright who was the chief of the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Massachusetts, as well as labor organizations like the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. On June 27, 1884 a bill signed into law (23 Stat. 60) by President Chester Arthur created the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The new department was placed in the Department of the Interior and Carroll D. Wright became its first Commissioner.

The agency quickly got to work and started their long history of publishing all matter of data and within four years they produced their first consumer expenditure survey. In 1902 they published wholesale prices (later called the Producer Price Indexes) and in 1913 they published the Consumer Price Indexes. In 1895 they began publishing many of the reports and statistics through The Bulletin and later, in 1915, they introduced the Monthly Labor Review. It wasn't until 1949 that they began to publish one of their other well-known titles, the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Beyond that, the BLS has published many other reports and statistical data products.

Administratively, over its history, the Bureau has moved around. When it was founded it was placed in the Department of Interior but it didn't stay there.

  • In June 1888 it became an independent department with the passage of the Department of Labor Act.
  • In February 1903 it was transferred to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor with the Department of Commerce Act.
  • In March 1913 it was transferred again to the newly created Department of Labor.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is still part of the Department of Labor and as of 2022, there have been 15 Commissioners including Janet Norwood who became the first woman to be appointed Commissioner in 1979. The Bureau continues to publish a wealth of data used by students, academics, economists, and government officials.

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