Carroll D. Wright
January 1885–January 1905
Appointed by: Chester Allen Arthur
Served under: Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt
Carroll Wright was born in New Hampshire in 1840, the son of a Universalist minister and farmer. During the Civil War, he enlisted in the 14th New Hampshire Volunteers and rose to the rank of colonel. After the war, he opened up a furniture store, but it quickly went out of business. He then became a patent attorney and went into politics, serving two terms in the Massachusetts Senate.
In the early years after the war, attempts to create a national labor agency were unsuccessful, but organized labor's efforts were rewarded with the establishment of the first state Bureau of Labor Statistics in Massachusetts in 1869. However, the first Chief and other high officials in the agency were too closely tied to the activist labor movement, which caused considerable controversy and almost destroyed the Bureau. Hoping to establish the Bureau's credibility, in 1873 Governor William Washburn replaced the first Chief with Wright, someone who was not associated with the labor reformers. Wright proved to be the right man; his dearth of knowledge of both statistics and labor problems was overcome by his determination to be impartial. The Bureau soon was effective enough that 12 other states followed Massachusetts' lead and established their own labor bureaus in the next 10 years.
By 1884, congressional support for a national Bureau of Labor was overwhelming, and, on June 27th, it was established as part of the Department of the Interior. The bill gave the President the power to appoint a Commissioner of Labor to a 4-year term. President Chester Arthur passed over several candidates from various labor organizations and, in January 1885, chose Wright to be the first person to occupy this office. Once again, Wright's objective judgments and impartiality were important factors in the Bureau's instant success. Reviews of the Bureau's early work were overwhelmingly positive. It is interesting to note that during the first 3 years of his time as Commissioner, Wright continued to serve as Chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Carroll Wright, as the first Commissioner of Labor, further defined the role future occupants of the office would play. "When first appointed United States Commissioner of Labor, Wright spelled out carefully the policy that this new factfinding agency should limit itself to factual investigation and eschew propaganda."
During Wright's tenure, the Bureau published numerous reports, including 19 annual and 12 special reports, which covered a wide variety of labor, industrial, and related problems. "The choice of survey subjects and the scope of inquiries undertaken by the Bureau were largely decided by Wright, although, in some instances, the problems to be studied were prescribed by Congress."
In 1886, the Bureau published its first annual report; the subject, industrial depressions, was motivated by the poor economic conditions of the mid-1880s, particularly in the railroad industry. Depressions from as far back as 1830 in the United States and several European countries were analyzed. Wright concluded that major causes of depressions were overproduction/underconsumption and speculative investment.
In 1890, Congress enacted a tariff sponsored by Representative William McKinley of Ohio, who became U.S. President 7 years later. The following year, the Senate Committee on Finance wanted to determine the tariff’s effects and asked the Bureau to collect data on prices, wages, and hours of work. The result was two Bureau reports that were hailed as landmark sources of data on prices and wages. In 1892, "Retail Prices and Wages" was published, and this was followed by "Wholesale Prices, Wages, and Transportation" the next year. In 1902, using a survey based on the years 1890-1901 and an entirely new concept, the Bureau began publication of the Wholesale Price Index. This was followed in 1903 by the Bureau's first weighted retail price index, which covered the category of food.
In 1893, Wright was appointed Superintendent of the Census, despite his statements that he did not want the position. He held this office concurrently with his Labor Commissioner position until 1897. Despite a lack of available time to devote to his Census duties, he played a significant role, as several of the reforms he advocated for the Census were eventually put into effect, either during his term or shortly thereafter.
Studies on strikes and lockouts were published in 1887, 1894, and 1901. The former two reports provided estimates of the losses to both management and labor because of lost worktime. Wright participated in the settlement of several disputes between labor and management that had resulted in strikes, most notably the 1894 Pullman strike, where he was chairman of the Presidential investigative commission, and the 1902 anthracite coal strike.
Wright's early and continuing concern about the impact of changing industrial developments on the family, and particularly on the employment of women and children, was reflected in a series of landmark studies. One study provided information on wages, expenditures, health, moral standards, work environment, family backgrounds, and marital status of working women in 22 large cities. A later survey compared employment and wages of women and children with that of men in like occupations. Another significant Wright achievement was ethnic studies conducted on the condition of Negroes and of recently arrived immigrant groups. The Bureau also issued a report on the effects on labor of the introduction of machinery, whether it had depressed wages or increased unemployment.
Wright's last major contribution as Commissioner came in 1904 when the Bureau published its first annual report on wages and hours of labor. The study covered 519 different occupations; data were provided by 3,475 establishments in 67 industries.
On his 20th anniversary as Commissioner in January 1905, Wright retired from Government service. He had been the major figure in laying the Bureau's foundation. The studies conducted, reports published, and statistical concepts and techniques developed during his tenure were important, but perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the establishment of the principle that the Bureau would be devoted to "the fearless publication of the facts without regard to the influence those facts may have upon any party's position or any partisan's views." Carroll Wright died in February 1909.
Back to BLS Commissioners' History.
Last Modified Date: June 24, 2014