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Payroll in 1800s America

Posted On
September 8
In the Wild West, Jose Estrada, paymaster for a mining copy in California, wasn’t just cutting checks in the frontier. In 1821, he received what many scholars believe to be the first polio vaccination in the America. All in a day’s work for an exploratory paymaster.

But Estrada wasn’t the only force pushing payroll in new directions during 19th century America. As American businesses started establishing themselves, the clerk became a cornerstone of the pre-Civil War office. Due to the still relatively small size of American businesses, clerks spent most of their time copying documents by hand, but they also managed the finances of an entire business, including making all payments to employees and vendors.

As the Civil War began, the need for military payrolls arose once again. Unlike previous wars, many paymasters performed additional military roles, and they were often well-educated with a penchant to pen their experiences in the War Between the States.

These well-educated paymasters also felt like heavily documenting their payroll processes, a tradition that endures through present. Under the auspices of Additional Paymaster of the U.S. Army J.H. Eaton, The Army’s Paymaster’s Manual or Collection of Official Rules for the Information and Guidance of Officers of the Pay Department made its debuts. Payroll professionals worldwide can now point their collective finger at Eaton for starting a trend of wordiness in our industry.

Thankfully some payroll professionals were better with words than others. In 1862, a Civil War nurse by the name of Walt Whitman left the front and moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a copyist for the Army Paymaster. He wrote of a Civil War payday as a celebration: “It is a scene of sparkling eyes and flush’d cheeks. The soldier has many gloomy and harsh experiences, and this makes up for some of them….You hear the peculiar sound of the rustling of the new and crisp greenbacks by the hour, through the nimble fingers of the Major and my friend Clerk E.” (fromThe History of Payroll in the US). If only Whitman could edit Eaton.

After he left his post and earned his place in American letters, the Civil War, too, reached its end. A sizable portion of the US moved west, creating much of the folklore we still tell today. The Old West Paymaster was a man worthy of carrying money for exceedingly long distances, considered an “angel” as he rode through desserts and dicey areas to deliver checks as infrequently as every 6 to 8 months.

In 1892, Congress allowed paymasters to ship checks via US mail to soldiers serving in posts with no paymasters, effectively ending the “angel” period and ushering in a new wave of payroll for a new century. A new wave for a new blog post…

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