Burns Agency stationery

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Jan 14, 2013

Here’s something novel I turned up by accident, in one or another of my online searches. A sample of The William J. Burns International Detective Agency’s stationery. (I’m not sure I should just grab it from the host’s site, but click through and have a look.)

As a graphic designer, I can’t describe this as all that exciting or attractive; Burns’s rivals the Pinkertons had him thoroughly beat, just with graphic panache alone, to say nothing of their iconic and unnerving “We Never Sleep” logo itself. Now that was branding. Still, the Pinkertons were rather ahead of their time, there, and in 1921 Burns’s corporate and government clients probably didn’t particularly mind his duller graphic identity. As this piece of letterhead suggests. In addition to the firm’s three principals (Burns, and sons Raymond and Sherman) and 28 cities in which the agency had offices (they had a Cleveland office… I wonder where it was?), it lists four major clients: the California Bankers Association, the Railway Ticket Protective Bureau, the National Retail Dry Goods Association, and of course the American Bankers Association which Burns famously poached from their old agency, the Pinkertons. (Read more you-know-where.)

The contact information is also interesting. “Telephone: SUTTER 1775.” I’m guessing that “SUTTER” wasn’t a mnemonic for 788837, either. And then “Cable Address: WILBURNS,” which is even more curious given how remarkably it seems like the kind of thing we would associate with some kind of internet application. But, then, as Tom Standage noted in his excellent book The Victorian Internet, people actually had an internet 100 years ago, anyway.

One other interesting feature of this letterhead is that “800 First National Bank Bldg, San Francisco, Cal” seems to be highlighted as the primary address. The content suggests that this notice was issued by the San Francisco office, which conclusion the hosting site supports. And yet it points to one lingering question about the Burns agency which I never really resolved: where was its main headquarters? I’ve seen references to both Chicago and New York, but no clear evidence of which was the real HQ. It’s possible that both were, at different times; Burns himself moved around constantly (and was actually working in San Francisco at the time he most likely made initial plans for setting up the firm, which is why this letterhead gives me pause). Wikipedia seems to draw a blank on the matter. Given the way Burns ran his affairs, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Burns agency really had no genuine, single “primary office” during his years at all, at least for practical purposes. Having moved around the country regularly throughout his life, the concept might have seemed meaningless to him.

Maybe I’ll just call up SUTTER 1775 and ask.

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