The Origin of the Kansas City Better Business Bureau

Author: Aaron Reese

Most people have heard of the Better Business Bureau or BBB, but aren’t too familiar with who we really are. I wanted to change that by writing about where we came from so that hopefully it will give you some perspective on what we do for businesses and not-for-profits.

The first thing that people are surprised to hear is how old we are.
The Better Business Bureau of Greater Kansas City is the third oldest Better Business Bureau in North America. We’ve been in continuous operation for over 100 years.

Way back in 1914, there were hardly any advertising laws that prevented businesses from lying through their teeth about how amazing their products were. The newly formed Federal Trade Commission wouldn’t become a force to be reckoned with for many more decades. False and deceptive claims became so pervasive in the United States that legitimate advertisers worried that consumers would stop believing advertising altogether, thus putting them out of business.

So advertising clubs all over the country started forming groups called “vigilance committees.” Their sole purpose was to combat false advertising. That’s where we started–as a vigilance committee for the Kansas City Advertising Club.

The committee was made up of prominent Kansas City businessmen, including Chairman Lou Holland. Some of you may recognize the name because our downtown airport is named after him. He was friends with President Truman and is the main reason we have that airport.

The vigilance committee sponsored Missouri’s first Honest Advertising Law in 1915 and would eventually gain independence from the advertising club in 1916, changing its name to the Advertisers Protective Bureau and expanding its mission beyond combatting false advertising. Even though the BBB is now more famous for handling complaints, we still maintain an advertising review program 100 years later.

The Bureau’s first annual budget was just $1,475.50, which is about $32,000 in today’s money. At the time, most businesses were unhappy with the Bureau. We were out there telling people that they could no longer say whatever they wanted. It was against the law. This causes some friction.

In fact, the Bureau came to local prominence after the manager was punched in the face for confronting a furniture business engaged in deceptive advertising. Indignant, the Kansas City Star ran a story about it.

The Advertisers Protective Bureau changed its name to the Better Business Bureau Bureau of Greater Kansas City in 1922.

Now, I want to paint a picture of what Kansas City was like when the BBB was coming to prominence, making a name for itself, and getting punched in the face. In the 1920s and 30s Kansas City was a den of corruption under the thumb of the Pendergast political machine. Cops were corrupt, city officials were corrupt, judges were corrupt. All those gangsters you see in the old movies like Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly and Baby Face Nelson sought reprieve here because Kansas City was what retired FBI agent William Ouseley called an “Open City,” meaning that criminals operated in the open without fear of arrest.

During Prohibition, Kansas City didn’t have speakeasies like you think of, tucked away behind or underneath legitimate businesses, where you had to rap on the door and give passwords through a tiny slot. Kansas City had bars. You walked in the front door and ordered a drink. That’s the kind of city it was.

And that’s when two guys who worked for the BBB, J.B. Birkhead and George Gisler, decided that they were going to take on Loan Sharks and Salary Buying. Salary Buying is an old term for Payday Lending. They published articles, pamphlets and eventually books on the subject before working with the State of Missouri to take down loan sharks.

From 1927 to 1929, the BBB was responsible for getting seven indictments brought against loan sharks in the area. By the late 1930s, Birkhead and Gisler were so well-versed in loan shark tactics that they helped write a Missouri law that created stricter regulations and enforcement on usury practices (The law passed, but was nullified when Missouri ratified a new Constitution in 1946). Birkhead became so renowned for his knowledge about loan sharks that he was eventually named to a national committee on Usury laws.
You can still find him referenced on Wikipedia.

During that time, the BBB wasn’t just tackling loan sharks. We helped promote Blue Sky Laws and worked with the Securities Commissions. We were churning out tips and consumer education articles, which we still do. We started handling complaints against businesses.

We not only review businesses but also charities. We’re still striving for the fairness that we strove for 100 years ago and I’m hoping this gives you a little perspective on where we came from and the kind of good we hope to accomplish in the community on a daily basis!


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