1913 (adj.); 1937 (n.), "busy-work, activity of no value," American English, from the verbal expression to make work (see make (v.) + work (n.)).
A big fire devoured a street; "It will make work," I heard my father say; a ship was lost at sea laden with silk, and leather, and cloth; "It will make work," said my father; a reservoir broke jail, and swept the heart of the town away. "It will make work," my mother said; so all human calamities were softened blessings to me; they made "work," and work made wages, and wages made bread and potatoes, and clothes for me. ["The Radical Review," Chicago, Sept. 15, 1883]