Office Life in the 1950s and ’60s – October 2009
Getting Office Work Done
There were secretarial pools?
Bosses gave dictation?
Secretaries took shorthand?
And city streets were filled with bike messengers?
Today secretaries are a vanishing breed. Most office workers handle their own e-mail, answer their own phones. Spell-check and grammar-check on computers try to save us from errors. The streets of NYC still have a few bike messengers making deliveries, but they are becoming scarce.
When I sought out reminders of early office machines, I came upon descriptions of old adding machines with the small rolls of paper and and the giant posting machines to keep records up-to-date. I also read of a machine known as an “autotypist,” kind of like a player piano. One person was needed supervise every 3 or four machines, but the “autotypist” could type letters automatically.
And remember mimeographed school notes? Even if we never used mimeograph machines (mechanical devices that made multiple copies by pushing ink through a stencil), we certainly remember those notes.
But in the “Would You Believe…” category, I am indebted to a friend who reminded me that before there was e-mail, businesses sent messages, money, and small packages around the company via pneumatic tube. These were cylindrical containers that were propelled through a network of tubes by compressed air or by vacuum. Other pneumatic parcel transport systems were quite extensive. In Berlin, there was a system that ran for 400 km at its peak in 1940.
If you look around, you’ll find that a good number of these tubes still exist. Some banks still use them to transport receipts and money to a drive-up window, and some hospitals use computerized tube systems for delivery of medications from area to area.
The Typist’s Friend: Correcting Fluid
The inventor of “liquid paper” was a woman by the name of Bette Nesmith Graham (1922-1980), a single mother in Texas who went to work in 1951 to support herself and her son.
Bette painted as a hobby, and this experience was to pay off later on. She took great pride in her typed letters and was distressed when she made mistakes. She found typewriter erasers messy and inadequate. As a painter, she had learned to paint over mistakes, and this gave Bette an idea. Working at night in her kitchen, she created a water-based tempera paint tinted to match the typing paper. Using a watercolor paint brush, she used it to cover over any errors. When her boss failed to comment on the covered-up mistakes, she knew she had created a useful product.
Calling it Mistake Out, she put it in a green bottle and began sharing it with other secretaries.
Bette eventually changed the name of the product to Liquid Paper. The business was not profitable until 1968, but in 1979 Gillette Corporation bought Liquid Paper for $47.5 million plus royalties.
A slightly different product, Wite-Out was created in 1966 by an insurance clerk who was looking for a way to make corrections without smearing the print on photocopies.
If you ever worked on mechanical or electric typewriters, you know how important it was to have one of these products within easy reach!
P.S. Her son did fine for himself. He is Michael Nesmith of the rock group, the Monkees.
Proper Office Attire
A major change in the workplace has come in the form of attire. Prior to the last quarter of the 20th century, people dressed up to go to work. Women in the 1950s and 60s were not permitted to wear slacks in the office, and the men of the 1950s wore the classic “gray flannel suit,” with a single-breasted, three-buttoned jacket with narrow lapels and tapered trousers. Both men and women commonly wore hats.
A fashion encyclopedia notes that the 1950s was a time of conformity in the United States and in American fashion. Then came the major societal changes in the 1960s, which eventually evolved into more relaxed dress in the workplace. Today Casual Fridays are acceptable in many offices.
Email me if you have strong preferences for the attitude of “then” or “now.”
Fast Facts about Work (and Typing)
– In the 1950s and 60s office workers were stratified by gender and color. There was a glass ceiling as well as a glass box for all but white men.
– In most offices, smoking was widespread; in many, keeping a bottle of booze in the office drawer was part of the culture.
– And one entertaining memory about typing: Do you remember when department stores had typewriter sales departments? I remember my fascination-and that of everyone who preceded me-with typing this sentence into the typewriter.
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
And why did we type that sentence? Because it uses every letter in the alphabet.
Read the story of why we have the QWERTY keyboard.
Next month: Early Passenger Air Travel. Email me stories about your first plane ride.