I still don’t know what my undergraduate mentors wrote about me in the letters of recommendation I had asked them a few years ago. Between December 2018 and February 2019, this unknown variable in my application was tormenting. The electronic equivalent of a sealed envelope held words that could make or break my scholarly career: It was, for the better or worse, the humanizing factor in a series of long documents a committee was to review. It could shed light onto merits hidden in clunky prose or reveal that my polished prose holds nothing substantial in it. Most of the previous year, then, was spent strategizing over the choice of recommenders.
Letters of recommendation are not particularly new. A letter of reference was needed for finding a job beyond your immediate environment, beyond the geographical realm in which social knowledge — namely reputation — was transferred. For the fictional protagonist of one late 18th-century novel, such a letter allowed him to work as a military officer away "from ungrateful Germany,” both in Paris and the British colonies in North America.1
Letters of recommendation could be highly coveted. Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent, a precocious naturalist then aged 15, was able to save Pierre André Latreille, later a famous naturalist himself, from imprisonment by vouching for his scientific talents. Latreille received, according to one Austrian journal, “money, letters of reference, and the best certificates testifying for his republican sentiments from the president.”2 Bory, too, benefits from a similar letter written by a Parisian General, through which he was appointed as a sublieutenant in the French army. But most people, of course, did not need letters: word of mouth, if anything, was enough.
As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more Europeans began to join “the job market.” They worked for a salary, away from home, and in jobs they could not rely on their social resources to get. Sociologists and historians have long shown that getting a job depended for most people on personal relationships far into the twentieth century. Still, the percentage of people whose job opportunities could no longer depend on such relations kept growing. To facilitate this new job market, many documents emerged. School certificates quantified one’s academic achievement and thus became a major source of anxiety for parents and children alike; letters of recommendation provided a minimal source of information for prospective employers.
In 1925, the Austrian Association for Christian Domestic Servants’ magazine scolded young workers for giving “the strangest excuse” when asked by new employers to provide them with their “service card.”3 This service card, the magazine reassured, was meant to provide proof of experience, not of quality. Employers were forbidden, often by law, from writing anything beyond the employee's obligations and the time they worked in this capacity. “A letter of recommendation can be attached separately.” Guides for employment agency officials I read from interwar Yugoslavia seem to make similar points.
Indeed, letters of recommendation and service or workers’ cards filled two different roles. The latter was protected by the state and served to standardize the process of labor. Employers were to trust this piece of paper because it was official; it became part of a bureaucratic process in which labor was no longer mediated spontaneously on the town square but through agencies, increasingly under governmental control. Some countries, like the Soviet Union, retained governmental workers’ cards until well in the twentieth century. Letters of recommendation, on the other hand, were an act of patronage. They worked better if the recommender was a person of repute, almost regardless of the wording.
In 1929, a Georgian film named “My Grandmother” made this point rather forcefully. After receiving some bad coverage in the press, a certain midranking Bureaucrat gets fired for “being a notorious idler.” One of his colleagues tells him that he needs “a grandmother” to get his job back, a patron to sponsor him. This advice backfires. The pathetic bureaucrat works hard to impress this more senior patron that he manages to get one sealed envelope calling for his immediate rejection from any governmental job. The hilarious film, which you can find on YouTube,4 was banned until rediscovered in the 1970s. Perhaps calling “Death to the Bureaucracy” was too much for the Soviet censor.
A few years later, the Cypriot author Loukis Akritas published a novel named A Young Man with Good References. His narrator moves to Athens with a few drachmas and two letters of recommendation, hoping to become a journalist. These letters are of little use, but not because of their content. It is because of the lack of jobs that his efforts fail, and they only succeed due to the intervention of a friend he makes in Athens. These efforts fail due to vicious colleagues afraid for their jobs, and all further prospects are stymied for new reasons: he can't be a bookkeeper without the requisite skills and cannot translate from English without acquaintance with rather specialized terminology. Even when he turns to nonskilled labor, someone pleads for his family's life lest they starve and gets the job instead of our narrator. There is no happy ending here.5
Letters of recommendation, thus, give us a glimpse into a major societal change in the realm of work. As more people worked away from home in wage-based jobs, the job market grew increasingly impersonal. Even the middle classes could no longer retain their control of the bureaucracy. Letters of recommendation were now sent not only by royal courts and high nobles but by ordinary employers for the use of ordinary employees.
“My Grandmother” shows letters of recommendation at their worst and best. They reflect one’s character and result from a delicate game of personal relationships, not necessarily of professional merit. A Young Man with Good References, on other hand, reveals these letters at their most common status in the interwar crisis of capitalism: as useless pieces of paper. When written by ordinary newspaper editors in Cyprus, they meant very little to their ordinary Athenian counterparts. Most importantly, they were far from important given the circumstances that shape workplaces, from personal intrigues to economies of scarcity.
David Christoph Seybold, Reizenstein: die Geschichte eines deutschen Officiers (Leipzig, 1778).
Die Gartenlaube: illustrirtes Familienblatt 22 (1865), 355.
Die Hausgehilfin: Zeitschrift des Verbandes der Christlichen Hausgehilfinnen Österreichs 7, no. 5 (1925), 2.
Λουκής Ακρίτας, Νέος με καλάς συστάσεις (Athens, 1935).