Pink slip

Jan Ivarsson TransEdit transedit.h at TELIA.COM
Tue Mar 27 19:03:14 UTC 2001

In European languages, there are several old expressions of this type. German has "den blauen Brief bekommen" (get the blue letter), get a dishonorable discharge; French has "cartouche jaune" as opposed to "cartouche blanche"; Swedish has "avsked på grått papper", discharge on grey paper (at least since 1801) and Danish "afsked på gråt papir" (before 1758), all with the same sense: the color of the paper indicated that the military authorities or the employer were dissatisfied.

Jan Ivarsson
jan.ivarsson at

Original message:
In a message dated 03/26/2001 8:31:42 AM Eastern Standard Time,
Amcolph at AOL.COM (Ray Ott) writes:

> Probably not labor scholars.  For the blue collar worker up until quite
>  recently, discharge or layoff would have been dealt with on a face-to-face
>  basis.  Using a pink piece of paper smacks of bureaucracy and
>   would have its origin in white-collar workplace practices, I'll bet.

Possibly labor scholars would be able to help.

Consider the following account, from URL

... Eugene V. Debs' 1894 American Railway Union strike against the Pullman
Company. After that strike, general managers for the railroads used a
blackball system to keep strikers from returning to work.

At first, the general managers refused to issue service letters proving they
had railroad experience to those who had gone on strike. Without these
letters, it was almost impossible for a striker to get a railroad job.

After one striker successfully sued his railroad company employer, the
general managers changed direction and came up with a maneuver described as
the "crane with broken neck." The general managers wrote the service letters,
but on the stationery of paper manufacturer Crane Bros., which gave them a
choice of two secret watermarks, detectable only when the sheet was held up
to the light. One, showing a crane with head erect, was given to
non-strikers. The other, used for those who were involved in the 1894 strike,
had the bird's neck hanging down. It was a warning to potential employers
that the applicant had been a striker.


I have seen similar accounts in other sources.  Any labor scholar can discuss
the Pullman strike in detail, although s/he might not know the
broken-neck-crane story.

The point of the above is that railroad workers of the 1890's, who were
definitely blue-collar, expected as a matter of course to receive written
"service letters" from former employers, and apparently saw nothing out of
the ordinary in such documents being on watermarked paper.

While this does not suggest that railroads were the ones who started the
practice of using pink paper for firing notices, it does strongly suggest
that in the 1890's many blue-collar workers routinely received paper
documents on employment matters.

        - Jim Landau

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