Where Did the Term "Pink Slip" Originate?

iStock/Pawel Gaul
iStock/Pawel Gaul

The Short Answer: No one knows, but the search has been interesting.

The Long Answer: Getting a pink slip usually means you're fired. It's not something most people look forward to. Peter Liebhold, then, is an odd guy. He's been searching for a pink slip for years, and he's disappointed he keeps coming up empty.

Liebhold isn't looking to get canned. Rather, finding a pink slip is his job. He's a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and Chair of the Division of Work and Industry.

The history of business culture is his business. The pink slip is a mystery he's been chasing for a long time. Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase, but no one seems to know where it originated, or if there's an actual pink slip out there to be had.

The usual line of reasoning is that the phrase was born when one or more companies started the practice of terminating employees by giving them notice on a piece of pink paper. The color was chosen so that the notice would stand out from the rest of the paperwork on the poor guy's desk and he wouldn't miss it. The catch, of course, is that Liebhold and other historians haven't been able to track down an actual slip, or find any companies that actually fired people like this. The most they had to go on for a while was the Oxford English Dictionary citing the phrase's first known appearance in a 1915 pulp novel about baseball.

The most promising lead Liebhold ever had, he told the Baltimore Sun, was the Ford Motor Company. While poring over an obscure history journal, he found a footnote that led him to another article in another journal that talked about the daily evaluations of Ford's assembly line workers. The workers, the article went, all had lockers or cubbies where they kept their things, and at the end of the day they would find a slip of paper from management there. A white paper meant the day's effort was acceptable. A pink slip, though, meant that they weren't wanted back in the morning. 

Liebhold thought he'd finally found his elusive slip, but when he tracked down the source of the story, a California-based management consultant, he learned it was just an anecdote overheard in college. The consultant had been repeating it ever since. Neither the consultant, nor anyone at Ford who Liebhold talked to, had any evidence that the story was true.

Swing and a miss. 

Liebhold's search hasn't been in vain, though. He's found a few other bits of workplace history during the hunt, like the first American filing cabinet and some red twill that secretaries used to use to bundle documents together — apparently, the inspiration for bureaucratic "red tape."

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

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Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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