busywork, n. Primarily found in educational circles, busywork is intended to keep the tykes out of trouble.
In The antiquities of England and Wales, by Francis Grose, Vol. 1, 2ed, 1783, on page 116, there is an instance of architectural “busy work”:
I doubt that this instance is much related to the 1951 word, “busywork” because of lack of the educational “keep the tykes out of trouble” sense. I thought an earlier form might be “make-work” but I only saw two instances, both from 1888 in volume 21 of Canadian House of Commons debates that were locked behind a snippet view.
[edited to add:]
Education By Doing: Or Occupations And Busy Work, For Primary Classes, by Anna Johnson, 1884, page i [?], there are many instances of “busy-work”:
“… “Busy-work” has now become a necessity in all primary teaching. Teachers who have not had opportunity to visit those schools whence busy-work took its form and name, nor to attend the few normal [Schools that make it] an adjunct of [their] methods in [primary] work, will find the chapters devoted to...”
(This is poorly digitized with a number of scanning errors.)
In The Torch and colonial book circular, Volume 2, edited by Edward Augustus Petherick, 1888-89, on page 39, there is a reference to the title of a book or work called, Script Busywork:
From The Dial, a semi-monthly journal of literary criticism,..., by Marianne Moore, No. 178, Volume XV, Nov. 16th, 1893, page 296, there are two instances of “busywork”: