For decades, the FTC went into a period of dormancy where the agency appeared to get very little done. Much of the agency’s activity was focused on convening various industries for “Trade Practice Conferences,” where the FTC would oversee the creation of voluntary rules by business leaders. The minutes from the FTC’s activities in the 1930s and 1940s reflect efforts such as trade practice conferences for the “House Dress Wash Frock” industry, the “Shrinkage of Woven Yard Goods” industry, and the toilet brush manufacturing industry. Commissioner Philip Elman, one of the agency’s finest leaders, recounted fellow Commissioner Sigurd Anderson’s love of such conferences:
…An industry group will draft a code of fair competition, and they will submit it to the commission for approval, and we will approve it and that’s all done at a conference which is held, not in Washington, but where the industry wants to meet. And we always send a member of the commission to preside. You don’t have to do any work. All the work has been done. All you do is preside, and you will have these conferences all over the country. Every time a trade association has a meeting, a national meeting annually, where they want to invite somebody to make a speech, they always ask the Federal Trade commissioners. You’ll get lots of invitations, but I have to warn you about one thing: they’re going to want to give you honorariums. Don’t take them. You might get in trouble. Just stay away from that. But they will pay all your travel expenses and put you up in the best hotels. If you love to travel, you have come to the right place.
I recently spent too many hours reviewing these minutes of the Commission from the 1930s and 1940s… The most revealing moment was the shadow of a case, one involving a company called “National Census Bureau.” Could this have been the FTC’s first privacy case—perhaps one using the title of “census” to collect information from people? We will never know because the Commission used an informal process to address the case, and there is no memorialization of it in the Agency’s annual reports or in its case reporter.