Typewriters and Office
the first place, they [women] have in an eminent degree the quickness
of eye and ear,
the delicacy of touch, which are essential qualifications of a good operator."
F I Scudamore in an internal Post Office report, 1870.
Before the invention of the telegraph, the telephone and the typewriter,
office equipment had consisted of paper, pen and ink. The first typewriters
were developed around 1870. Advertisements for these new machines frequently
compared them to pianos or sewing machines, rendering them appropriate
for women to master. By the turn of the century, the typewriter had become
an essential part of the office and was operated by armies of female typists.
On the one hand it had eased women's access into the office, on the other
it limited their status and opportunities.
"The typewriter is especially adapted to female fingers.
They seem to be made for typewriting. The type-writing involves no more
hard labour than playing the piano." John Harrison, Manual of
the Typewriter, 1888.
In 1925 the architect Le Corbusier portrayed office machines optimistically
as 'human-limb-objects' and extension of the biological body that would
free us from unpleasant tasks. In reverse, the first female clerks were
used as biological extensions of the machine; women answered the telephone,
operated accounting machines, copied documents on the typewriter and processed
With the rise of the personal computer the division between active
intellectual and passive reproductive work blurred. The operation of a
keyboard is no longer perceived as an exclusively female task. The
development of digital technology will further challenge the physical
boundaries of the workplace with the laptop becoming a non-territorial
micro office for both sexes.
- Teresa Doherty and Gail Cameron, The Women's Library. Illustration: Spare
Rib, April 1978, photo copyright © The Women's Library
This month we highlight descriptions
for the papers of typists and secretaries, trade unions, and training
organisations. There are also links
to selected websites and suggested
- Phyllis Deakin (1899-1997)
worked as typist in the Times newspaper's typing bureau; the
audio recordings in this collection form part of the National Life Story
oral history collection.
- Minnie Pate: joined the Cambridge
University Typewriting Office in the 1890s; in 1950, Pate became the
first woman to become an honorary MA
of Cambridge University.
L. Haylett (fl. 1935): trained at
St. James's Secretarial College, London, then worked as a shorthand
of Post Office Women Clerks: founded at the beginning of the 20th
century; in 1913 the organisation joined the Federation of Women Clerks.
of Women Civil Servants founded in 1916 as an amalgamation of the
Federation of Women Clerks and the Civil Service Typists Association.
of Women Clerks & Secretaries: founded in 1903 as the Association
of Shorthand Writers; the Association dealt with staff that had been
recruited on a temporary basis.
for Promoting the Training of Women: founded in 1859 as the Society
for Promoting the Employment of Women; run and largely funded by women,
and kept the first register of employment for women.
Institute: founded in London in 1897, predating the better-known
National Federation of Women's Institutes by almost two decades, and
intended to be a centre for women involved in the professions; undertook
the training of typists.
College: opened in 1947 as a community college for young people
in the south of Glasgow; included the training of typewriting teachers.
by Dianne Shepherd. Links are provided to records on Copac for
these items. Copac
is the free, web based national union catalogue, containing the holdings
of many of the major university and National Libraries in UK and Ireland
plus a number of special libraries. For more information about accessing
items see the FAQs
on the Copac website.
- Victorian Clerks by Gregory Anderson (1976) Records
- Tied to the Typewriter by Sally Arnold (1979) Records
- Careers for educated women: Section 3 the secretarial, organising
and administrative professions by the Central Employment Bureau
for Women (1923) Records
- The process of occupational sex-typing the feminization of clerical
labor in Great Britain by Samuel Cohn (1985) Records
- Woman's place is at the typewriter the feminization of the clerical
labor force by Margery Davies (1974) Records
- Gendered by design? information technology and office systems
edited by Eileen Green, Jenny Owen, Den Pain (1993) Records
- Mechanical brides: women and machines from home to office
by Ellen Lupton (1993) Records
- Women for hire a study of the female office worker by Fiona
McNally (1979) Records
- Breaking out [videocassette] BBC2 (1996) The stories of five
secretaries or 'office wives', who divorced their typewriters and launched
new careers. Includes Betty
Boothroyd, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1992-2000.
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