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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Belittling the Beancounters

Once in a while a real jewel sparkles out from the great ash heap of musty historical documents. Here's editor Frank Flower (1854-1910), writing in the introduction to the Second Biennial Report of the Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, 1885-1886. He was chafing at instructions to print quantitative data for Washington officials:

"To the people of Wisconsin I hope [this report] will be an interesting and perhaps a somewhat valuable document; but for the Eastern metaphysicians it will probably be a grievous disappointment. They have expressed a desire to have the various states compile phalanges of abstract figures, because by running these blocks of statistics through their mysterious alembics, they can, like the alchymists they are, produce results which, though of no practical value, are nevertheless very mystifying to the groundlings and very serviceable in advertising the conjurors...

"The important work of this Bureau is by no means its Report. Real, direct good comes from the enforcement of labor laws, annihilation of child labor, securing new legislation, and general activity in behalf of wage-earners, more than from collecting columns of figures which only one in fifty can understand and which not more than one in a thousand will read. For the present, therefore, we shall be forced to let the critical metaphysicians collect their own figures; though after we shall have the laws fairly enforced, more attention will be given to statistics, and we shall try next time to present a more interesting and valuable Report."

Despite that concluding self-deprecation, Flower's account of the 1885 strike of Menominee sawmill workers was reprinted verbatim in the Marinette paper (here). The Society's copy of his entire report is online at the Univ. of Wisconsin's digital collections site.

By the time he wrote the preceding indictment of administrivia, Flower had already been a successful newspaperman and author. He wrote biographies of the early Republican reformers in Wisconsin, as well as a history of Milwaukee, before being appointed commissioner of labor statistics. After serving in that capacity from 1883 to 1888, he went to Superior to be its city statistician, then moved to Washington about 1898. In 1909 he was appointed attache to a commission investigating U.S. interests in Liberia, and he died there unexpectedly on Aug 1, 1910, after exposure to spinal meningitis.

His 1886 plea for real government that made a difference to the vast majority of citizens was written long before the phrase "progressive movement" had been coined. Its underlying assumption -- that government should serve all citizens by applying expert knowledge to enact and enforce reform -- would find expression in the famous "Wisconsin Idea."

:: Posted in Curiosities on August 23, 2007

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