Mary Hull – One of the First Female Intelligent Fanatics


In the early 20th century, women stayed in the home or worked in acceptable female jobs that didn’t provide much room for advancement in title or pay. There certainly weren’t many female entrepreneurs from this time period, let alone female intelligent fanatics that created a market leading company. A few of our members tasked us with finding and retelling the stories of the very earliest female intelligent fanatics. We were up for the challenge.

In addition to Persis Foster Eames Albee’s story highlighted in short (HERE), we’ve got another great example, and I guarantee you’ve never heard of her.

Before big data and before computers, offices had to file and store their data physically. Prior to the 20th century this was done in a haphazard way. Then Mary Hull institutionalized the installation of library methods in big business offices.

She rode a wave and single-handedly built the indexing industry. Mary Hull’s leadership was so good that her business, Hull Indexing Bureau, held a 100% monopoly on the indexing services market in New York by 1917. This was nearly 10 years after founding the business.

Hull’s School of Business Filing and Indexing, the first in the country, rapidly trained and motivated hundreds of female workers a month, thus creating the largest shortage of skilled librarians in the United States.

Here is Mary Hull’s story of seeing, molding, and mastering an opportunity.

Miss Hull described her youth and initial interest becoming a librarian:

“As a child I enjoyed playing around a nearby public library. When I grew up I, like other girls, wanted to do something ‘lady-like,’ so I chose library work as a profession, never dreaming that it would lead to a business career.”

Hull would train at the Pratt Institute Library School and work at a number of various libraries. But, like other intelligent fanatics, she saw an opportunity, molded it and ran with it. Hull saw the oportunity while working a temporary position with a lawyer. She said:

“He [the lawyer] had a set of big scrap-books, filled with clippings that he engaged me to index. His legal briefs covered everything from insurance to sugar, and by the time I had indexed them I began to see the business need and the possibilities for women which made me to specialize in business indexing.”

The idea of a librarian, at the time, stepping into the business world was taboo, however. She said:

“I was treated as something of a pariah, and made to feel that I had lost caste. According to the library cult, I was disgraced.”

That didn’t stop Mary Hull. Miss Hull couldn’t stand the librarian’s incentive structure. She didn’t like that no matter how efficient she became she could never receive a salary commensurate with her training and rare qualifications.

Hull was ambitious. She did something about it. The next few years Hull made it a point to gain as much experience with all types of office work and their indexing needs. This was her preparation.

It then came time to start her business. Similar to Mary Kay Ash (HERE), Hull was discouraged from starting her business by a business man. He advised her, “Don’t ever go into business for yourself, Miss Hull, unless you have at least $2,000 ($55,000 inflation adjusted) in the bank.”

Mary Hull didn’t have that much money. What she did have was “plenty of experience and a larger supply of ‘nerve'”. With less than $100 ($2,000 inflation adjusted) in cash, she opened a little office, consisting of a desk in the corner of another woman’s office. She started working and word spread quickly. Offices of all types were in dire need of her services.

“The business demand was growing all the time, as fast as telephones, telegraphs, and cables linked this and other countries closer together in need for commercial information which has been kept by card record systems only in the last few years.”

Similar to Costco and a few other intelligent fanatic-led organizations, Hull didn’t advertise. Their motto was, “Advertising is not our policy. Personal recommendation our keynote.”

A booming business was good but had its bottlenecks. Mary Hull could do only so much work herself. She needed to find qualified female librarians to help meet the demand. Hull needed to train and motivate those women, while keeping an eye on operating her current clients. She skillfully accomplished this task.

Mary first created a superior incentive structure to attract and motivate qualified librarians. Remember, the incentive had to be so good that those women would be okay risking their professional reputations. No one wants to be shunned.

A new public librarian would be paid around $50 a month. Hull, on the other hand, paid at minimum $60 a month for a new office indexing and filing employee. While the librarian’s pay was capped at $1,500 a year ($30,000 inflation adjusted), Hull’s incentive was sky’s the limit. Hull’s more experienced ladies earned $50 a week ($2,500 a year or $50,000 inflation adjusted) and the elites who worked at top Wall Street firms received $5,000 a year ($100,000 inflation adjusted) salaries.

The work changed ever day, and Hull noted that it was necessary “to meet constantly changing business conditions.” Part of that preparation was properly training new recruits the basics of indexing and helping them keep up with changes. Hull Indexing Bureau provided an initial thorough three-month training course for every new woman. However, Mary was never satisfied in her training method. She continued to evolve with new business changes and eventually developed a six month course.

Yet, Hull still couldn’t keep up with demand, so she decided to establish a Service Bureau. She created, Hull’s School of Business Filing and Indexing, to train and place women into jobs. In addition to indexing and filing, by 1921, Hull was training her women to become secretaries, stenographers, statisticians and business librarians.

Hull Indexing Bureau and Hull’s School of Business Filing and Indexing’s ultimate fate is unknown. Hull maintained a virtual monopoly of the indexing industry in New York City as far as we can tell from newspaper clippings.

Fear will always try to convince you to stay where you are, but your greatest accomplishments come when you step out from the crowd. Mary Hull’s story is a great reminder of seizing opportunity.

Here are a few other articles you would enjoy:

Intelligent Fanatics Case Study - Mary Kay Ash

Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia on Controlled Growth

The Power of Compounding Small Daily Decisions

Some Thoughts on “Cradles of Eminence: Childhoods of More Than 700 Famous Men and Women”

Transcript – Jack Ma World Economic Forum 2018

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at