Private Eyes and Ears: Covert Surveillance in American Life, 1865-1941

People Involved

Associate Professor Stephen Robertson

Project overview

This project examines the covert surveillance conducted by private investigators in the United States prior to World War Two, activities that ensured that, despite the restricted apparatus of the government, being watched was an everyday experience for many Americans. By focusing on the work of individual investigators, the project will provide a framework for interpreting personal surveillance and, by examining the circulation of individuals and practices between the private sector and government that extended state surveillance beyond the scope allowed by the Constitution, offer a new perspective on the American state and its surveillance apparatus, and ideas of freedom.

Australia’s political engagement with the United States is central to its foreign and domestic policies. Encounters with American culture are a regular part of Australians’ daily lives. Enhancing the capacity to interpret the United States is therefore crucial to the Priority Goal of “Understanding our region and the world.” The project provides a historical perspective on the attitudes that underpin American responses to terrorism, and on ideas of freedom that are crucial to interpreting American foreign policy. It develops a framework for thinking about personal surveillance that can also contribute to discussions of Australia’s own responses to terrorism.

Research Grants

  • ARC Discovery Grant, 2008-2010
  • Faculty of Arts Research Seed Grant, 2006

In Progress

"The Pinkertons and the Paperwork of Surveillance: Reporting Private Investigation in the United States, 1865-1940"

"Private Detectives and the Invasion of Privacy in the United States, 1880-1940"

Publications

"The Company's Voice in the Workplace: Labor Spies, Propaganda and Personnel Management, 1918-1920," Labor: Studies in the Working-Class History of the Americas (forthcoming)

"Harlem Undercover: Vice Investigators, Race and Prostitution in the 1920s," Journal of Urban History 35, 4 (May 2009): 486-504

Presentations

"Private Detectives and the Paper Work of Surveillance in the United States, 1855-1939," presented at Paper Work: the Materials and Practices of Modern Information Cultures, University of Otago, May 24, 2013 [invited]

Private Detectives and Privacy in the Early Twentieth-Century United States, presented at the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, Brisbane, July 4, 2012

Private Eyes and Ears –The Emergence of Covert Surveillance in America, presented at ASIS NSW, May 29, 2012

The Company's Voice in the Workplace: Labor Spies, Propaganda and Personnel Management, 1918-1920, presented at the Department of History Seminar, University of Sydney, March 19, 2012

"Private Detectives and Privacy," presented at Surveillance and/in Everyday Life, University of Sydney, February 20-21, 2012

“The Company’s Eyes, Ears, and Voice in the Workplace: A Reconsideration of Labor Spying in Interwar Bag and Cotton Mills,” presented at the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association Conference, Adelaide, July 2, 2010

“We Are Very Anxious To Have An Intelligent [Woman] Worker’s Point Of View”: Gender and the Practices of Workplace Surveillance in Interwar Cotton Mills," presented at the Organization of American Historians Conference, Washington, DC, April 10, 2010