Search This Blog

Monday, 16 March 2015

The arrival of women in the office

Hello everyone.

The typewriter is almost obsolete in the modern office. 
...but it played a crucial role in women's arrival in the workplace

 This piece is based on an edited transcript of Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life, produced by Russell Finch, of Somethin' Else, for BBC's Radio 4

Let us begin...

In 1887, Rudyard Kipling met one of the new breed of typewriting girls while visiting San Francisco.
They aroused in him a mixture of fear and fascination, insisting that their work was enjoyable and their "natural fate" - that was until Kipling questioned further.
"Well, and after?" said I. "What happens?"
"We work for our bread."
"Till you die?"
"Ye-es, unless," said the partner in the firm audaciously, "sometimes we marry our employers - at least that's what the newspapers say."
The hand banged on half a dozen of the keys of the machine at once. "Yes, I don't care. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it!"

In offices today almost all the most boring tasks are done by women. At the photocopier, at the filing cabinet (or its digital equivalent) and on the reception desk - it's females only. So much so that when a few years ago I came across my first male PA I was almost as shocked as Kipling.
This feminisation of office work happened incredibly fast. Until the late 19th Century there were no women in offices at all. In 1870, there were barely a thousand of them. By 1911 there were 125,000 and by 1961 there were 1.8 million, in 2001 there were 2.5 million female clerks.
But how did it all begin?
A photograph taken in 1899 shows a young woman sitting on a desk, legs crossed with one foot on her chair. She's wearing a nice pair of shoes and there's a bike leaning against her desk. On the desk a half-eaten apple, a glass, a desk calendar, some files and... a Remington Standard 2 typewriter.
It's a pretty racy picture for the time - you might even be able to see a hint of her upper shin, never mind ankle.
But what it does show is a new type of working woman with the twin instruments of emancipation - the bicycle and, more importantly, the typewriter.
As the American Journal noted in 1898: "No expert can manage either the typewriter or the bicycle while she is held in a close-fitting cage of whalebone and steel."

The first commercial typewriter 
was produced in 1873 by E Remington and Sons

The first commercial typewriter was produced in 1873 by E. Remington and Sons The first machines with the Qwerty keyboard were triumphantly brought on to the market by the US gun-maker E Remington and Sons, in 1873. But far from being popular they were a total flop and probably would have stayed that way, had not some bright spark in the marketing department had the great idea of flogging them to women - to the daughters of middle-class businessmen.
"The typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers. They seem to be made for typewriting. The typewriting involves no hard labour and no more skill than playing the piano," wrote John Harrison, in his 1888 Manual of the Typewriter.
In the stores at the Museum of London are some early typewriters, including a very early Hammond model, which looks like a mahogany toilet seat.
The keys were made for dainty figures.
The typical typist was a liberated woman. Novelists and playwrights - George Gissing and JM Barrie - were fascinated by her, creating heroines who wore no-nonsense clothes, rode a bicycle, took up smoking and hung out with anarchists in the English countryside.

Writers George Gissing and JM Barrie were inspired by typical typists, 
who they saw as liberated women, 
often incorporating them into their work as heroines

A real life version of these pioneers was Janet Hogarth, who became the Bank of England's first ever female clerk in 1893.
She was a high flier in her day. She had achieved first class honours in philosophy from Oxford and was a skilled linguist. But her job was a boring one.
Women were cheaper than men, and took over the jobs that were previously filled by young boys, who would have been supervised by an older man because it was so mind-bendingly boring.
Hogarth writes of it in her autobiography. "It was almost unbelievably soothing to sit in the quiet upper room with nothing to do but lay out banknotes in patterns like patience cards," she wrote. "Learning all about the little marks on them, crossing them up in piles like card houses, sorting them in sixties and finally entering their numbers in beautiful ledgers made of the very best paper, as if intended to last out all ages."

In the late 19th Century it was inconceivable to have men working alongside typewriter girls, for fear of damage to their morals. Precisely how the damage was meant to occur, no-one was quite clear, but it was thought best to keep the sexes entirely separate.
So men and women had different entrances, different working hours, different dining rooms and often worked behind screens or in attics so that no man could see them.
An autobiography by a male employee at the Bank of England recalls how ridiculous it all was.
"The streets it was held were safe enough, but once she the woman clerk entered this forbidding fortress every imaginable horror was predicted," wrote the author.

But that wasn't all. So as to avoid the danger of typewriter girls on the loose, many employers refused to let them out during their lunch break. Women at the Post Office were not allowed a midday breath of fresh air until 1911 - and that was only after a kicking up a huge row and making personal appeals to the postmaster general.

So how did men feel about their new female colleagues?
The answer - predictably - was that they weren't happy at all. Part of the hostility was fair enough. The women were an endless source cheap competition. A particularly patronising piece was published in the Liverpool Echo in 1911:
"These intrepid typewriter pounders, instead of being allowed to gloat over love novels or do fancy crocheting during the time they are not 'pounding', should fill in their spare time washing out the offices and dusting same, which you will no doubt agree is more suited to their sex and maybe would give them a little practice and insight into the work they will be called up to do should they so far demean themselves as to marry one of the poor male clerks whose living they are doing their utmost to take out of his hands at the present time."

Birdie Reeve Kay, 
a champion typist capable of more than 200 words a minute

But actually the arrival of women in the office wasn't altogether bad for men. If they had working daughters - as many did - their households were better off. And as women were given the most tedious things to do, men's chances of promotion were higher. And then, of course, the women were easy on the eye and possible candidates for future wives and mistresses.

Meanwhile, at the Bank of England, the chief accountant, a Mr Stuchbury, was hard at work with his stopwatch calculating whether employing women was such a good idea after all.
He studied a question that has always interested me - are women more conscientious than men. His answer was much as I'd figured out for myself - yes.
He found that 37 women had counted as many notes as 47 men, and with fewer mistakes

Strangely, all I need is to curl the ends of my bobbed hair
and I'm her look-alike. :)

In other words, the office is where we belong. :)


  1. As someone old enough to remember using a typewriter (I did not grow up with a computer in my house and am, by and large, amongst the very last generation in many developed countries who can say as much, but we did have a typewriter) and who has always been a big fan of this wonderful invention, this awesome post really struck a chord (err, key?) with me.

    I don't own one at present, but would love to find a working typewriter again and to use actually use it. The font it produces can be created online certainly, but it doesn't come with the soul satisfying clank of the keys or the history behind them, both of which I adore.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. As someone who, like yourself, has grown up lovingly enjoying the sound and feel of typing, I know the sentiment. I wasn't born in "computer time". The main media bach them was TV, and since only grown-up hat the control over the remote, we had to opt for other fun things. One of them was a typewritter - and I guess that's when I developed even greater love for writing.

      I have an old, old one.. and as soon as I get my own place - I will get it down from the attic and into the spotlight.


  2. Heh, you DO look like the Underwood girl!

    I fail to see how housework is better suited to women. Last time I checked, I didn't do the dusting with my boobs, I used my hands like most other people... Greater equality is one of the good things about living now!

    1. Thank you, Mim
      It strucked me, as I was looking for some suitable images.
      Like yourself, I also disagree with women being ONLY in the ousehold - but it's a matter of choice. Ladies have the right to chose how to run their lives.


  3. could someone take me out of the office? ...
    hey, recently I'm working -next to my wonderful office job- on opening a little etsy shop, shipping worldwide. Like a lot of other vintage lovers I'm a little hoarder ... I own to many pieces that are just not meant to be mine. what comes around goes around. stay tuned I will tell on the blog and Instagram, when it gets opened.

    1. Aha!
      These are great insider-informations.
      Unlike you, I am not happy with the proportion of clothes I have (usual thing: too much of one thing, too little of another one). As soon as it's public, I'll make sure to take a look. I'm sure I'll find something to find dear, and to purchase.


  4. Wow, you really dó look like the woman in the picture!
    Lovely post and photos by the way!

    1. Well, thank you.
      Thank you for the compliment. It really means a lot.
      I hope you're doing well.


  5. What a fabulous post, I loved it! I had to stop twice at the picture of the underwoods girl, it's crazy how much alike you are. Cool! I wish you a darling day, sweet gal!

    1. Thank you, sween Annie.
      My intention was (and still is) to keep up looking enat and tidy - and as it hapend I turned out looking just like a desk-clerk back in the day.. and it's not a bad thing. :)