Typewriters and Office Machines

Spare Rib magazine: Dear Boss, Type your own tea!
"In 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 data.

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 reading .

Collection descriptions

  • 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.
  • Helen L. Haylett (fl. 1935): trained at St. James's Secretarial College, London, then worked as a shorthand typist.
  • Association of Post Office Women Clerks: founded at the beginning of the 20th century; in 1913 the organisation joined the Federation of Women Clerks.
  • Federation of Women Civil Servants founded in 1916 as an amalgamation of the Federation of Women Clerks and the Civil Service Typists Association.
  • 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.
  • Society 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.
  • Women's 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.
  • Langside College: opened in 1947 as a community college for young people in the south of Glasgow; included the training of typewriting teachers.

Related links

Suggested reading

Compiled 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 on Copac
  • Tied to the Typewriter by Sally Arnold (1979) Records on Copac
  • Careers for educated women: Section 3 the secretarial, organising and administrative professions by the Central Employment Bureau for Women (1923) Records on Copac
  • The process of occupational sex-typing the feminization of clerical labor in Great Britain by Samuel Cohn (1985) Records on Copac
  • Woman's place is at the typewriter the feminization of the clerical labor force by Margery Davies (1974) Records on Copac
  • Gendered by design? information technology and office systems edited by Eileen Green, Jenny Owen, Den Pain (1993) Records on Copac
  • Mechanical brides: women and machines from home to office by Ellen Lupton (1993) Records on Copac
  • Women for hire a study of the female office worker by Fiona McNally (1979) Records on Copac
  • 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. Records on Copac

You can receive regular updates on our special features by joining our mailing list.