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BLS History


Ethelbert Stewart

June 1920–June 1932

Ethelbert Stewart Appointed by: Woodrow Wilson
Also served under: Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover

The fourth Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Ethelbert Stewart, was born in Cook County, Illinois, the county that encompasses Chicago, in 1857. After moving south to Lincoln, Illinois at the age of 20, Stewart began publishing the Lincoln County Republican. He later sold his interest in the paper and made a few other job changes before beginning work at the Decatur Coffin Factory. Laboring in a factory stimulated his interest in the workingman's situation, and he became involved in politics. The year 1885 was one of both blessings and curses for Stewart. Although he was unsuccessful in his run for the office of city clerk on a workingman's ticket, he did later obtain a position as an officer at the Illinois State Trades and Labor Convention. Also, his efforts on behalf of the workingman were not popular with company management and led to him being blacklisted by them. However, Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby was impressed by Stewart's work and appointed him Secretary of the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics. Stewart also joined the Knights of Labor and took on the position of editor for the Decatur Labor Bulletin. All of this occurred in 1885.

Stewart continued as Secretary of the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics through four successive 2-year terms, ending in 1893. Concurrently with the Secretary position, Stewart became a special agent for the new Federal Bureau of Labor in 1887. He continued in this role until 1910, when he transferred to the Tariff Board and followed that by going to the Children's Bureau in 1912. However, in 1913, he returned to what had now become known as the Department of Labor when he became simultaneously the Chief Clerk, Chief Statistician, and Deputy Commissioner for BLS. During the next 7 years, he performed the duties of these offices with distinction, as well as serving the Department in a variety of other capacities.

In 1920, Secretary of Labor Wilson recommended Stewart to President Woodrow Wilson (no relation) for the position of Commissioner of Labor Statistics. Politics delayed Stewart's confirmation, but he was renominated by incoming President Warren G. Harding and confirmed in April 1921.

During World War I, much of the work of BLS had been paid for with special funds, but afterwards funding returned to normal levels and several programs were cut. Nevertheless, by developing cooperative relationships with the State bureaus and establishing a nationwide network of reporting agencies, the Bureau was able to expand some of its programs. Stewart also increased cooperative relationships with professional societies such as the American Economic Association and the American Statistical Association.

Early in Stewart's tenure as Commissioner, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, along with President Harding, pushed for the cost-of-living work to be transferred to the Census Bureau. This proposal was never acted upon, but, in order to live within its budget, in 1925, the Bureau had to begin publishing the index semi-annually, rather than quarterly. Because it was a less costly and complex process than using the consumer expenditure survey to calculate a cost-of-living index estimate, the Bureau expanded its collection of retail prices, so that by 1932, it included 42 articles of food in 51 continental cities of the United States and in Honolulu.

The wholesale price index was revised and expanded three times while Stewart was in office, the last time being in 1932 when the number of price series was increased to 784 and index publication became weekly, rather than just quarterly. This index proved to be very popular and became the focus of various legislative proposals for stabilizing commodity price levels. For example, a 1922 bill in Congress would have pegged the quantity of gold weight in the dollar to a BLS index of wholesale prices in an attempt to maintain constant purchasing power.

Stewart expanded the collection of wage data and launched a few new series in this branch of labor statistics. In the late 1920s, the Bureau started a monthly series on current general wage changes based on questionnaires sent to establishments and unions. Especially valuable were the series begun in 1932 on hours worked per week and average hourly earnings.

The Bureau had already moved to expand its employment series when, in 1926, a study sponsored by the American Statistical Association recommended that BLS function as the coordinating agency for the publication of "a periodic report on employment throughout the nation." By the following year, the Bureau's monthly reports provided information on 54 manufacturing industries, covering approximately 11,000 establishments. After the stock market crash in October 1929, Stewart's and the Bureau's concentration increasingly was on employment and unemployment statistics. However, differences in unemployment estimates between the Bureau and the Employment Service, the latter estimate being lower and favored by the Hoover administration, became a politically explosive matter that hastened Stewart's retirement.

Stewart was a strong advocate of statistical programs in the areas of industrial safety and health. In 1926, the Bureau began an annual survey of industrial injuries in a group of manufacturing industries. Later, using data from 1930 covering about 25 percent of the workers in 30 manufacturing industries, the survey reported average frequency and severity rates.

Social insurance and various forms of protective legislation continued to be an active interest of the Bureau. In the early 1920s, reports were published on workmen's compensation, family allowances, legal aid, cooperatives, minimum wage, women workers, and child labor. Later in the decade, the Bureau concentrated on pension and retirement income.

The study of productivity and the effects of technological change made important strides under Stewart as productivity became an issue in labor-management relations in the 1920s. In 1926, the Bureau published its first annual indexes of labor productivity for the automobile, steel, paper, and shoe industries, and followed this in 1927 with indexes for 11 other industries.

On July 1, 1932, Commissioner Stewart, then 74 years old, was retired involuntarily under the Economy Act of 1932, which required automatic separation of retirement-age Federal employees after July 1932, unless specifically exempted by the President. Stewart's term ran until December 1933, but Secretary of Labor Doak's refusal to recommend exemption resulted in his termination. It was only 4 years later, in 1936, when Ethelbert Stewart died.

Back to BLS Commissioners' History.


Last Modified Date: June 13, 2012