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A Brief History of Freelancing

A white man with short brown hair dressed in European knight's regalia rides a horse and carries a jousting lance.
Via Unsplash.

Being someone who uses research as a part of her daily life and work, it was inevitable that I was going to get curious about the history of my chosen profession. Surprisingly, the concept of freelancing actually goes back much further than many people think. To give you a better idea of what I mean, let’s walk through a basic timeline of events that led up to the invention of freelancing as the modern career we recognize.

In 1819, with the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a word arrived in the English language record to refer to medieval soldiers who freely gave the services of their shields, swords, and lances to any nation or person – usually a noble – who could pay them the most. These mercenaries, as we would call them in modern times, took up the title of Free Lances.

“I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”

– Chapter 34 of Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott.

Over time, the term “free lance” came to refer to an unaffiliated politician (we’d called them “independents,” now). Eventually, the word became synonymous with any professional who sold their services on an individual basis rather than accepting traditional employment. These professionals would come to be known as freelancers by the early 1900s.

It’s about that time that we start seeing records of what we would consider as the modern freelancer’s work. Specifically, PG Wodehouse’s “The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy,” a short story from 1930, describes the life of a writer who worked independently before becoming an in-house editor. It was apparently a relatively common – if often short-lived – profession at the time.

Freelancing wasn’t necessarily seen as a lifelong career until the dawn of the digital age in the early 90s when the eruption of the Internet meant finding freelance positions was easier than ever before and could be done much more quickly with a wider reach than your local newspapers and businesses.

Now, freelancing is more popular than it ever has been before. People can work on their own terms, for whoever they want, from wherever they want – in a world still recovering from a devastating pandemic, this is an attractive lure to the industry. I think that's pretty cool.

If you're interested in learning more about the practical daily life of freelancing, consider watching my presentation on succeeding as a freelancer for the Kansas Authors Club!

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