Schooled to be Secretaries (1900-1980)

Girls took advantage of school typing programs because offices paid better than factories and were cleaner too.

But training didn't guarantee a job. Most employers did not hire Latina or African American secretaries.

I skipped typing class in 1978 because I didn't want to be a secretary. Did you take typing?

           —Nancy, the curator

1900s

White men performed secretarial duties as clerks through the 1910s. With the typewriter, employers opened office work to lower-paid white women.

Typing Class at Business High School, Washington, D.C., 1900

Typing Class at Business High School, Washington, D.C., 1900

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-40525

1950s

Girls took typing classes in the hopes of finding a job with better wages. Yet employers mostly hired unmarried white women.

 

High School Typing Class, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, around 1950

High School Typing Class, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, around 1950

Courtesy of Red Cloud Indian School and Marquette University. Holy Rosary Mission – Red Cloud Indian School Records, ID MUA_HRM_RCIS_03608

1970s

This 1975 classroom is like the one from 1900. Secretarial work promised girls an independent income for almost a century.

Typing Class at St. John Villa Academy, New York, 1975

Typing Class at St. John Villa Academy, New York, 1975

Photograph by Eric Bard/Corbis via Getty Images

   Many girls trained to be secretaries. But mostly white girls got the jobs.

Office Work

In a world before copying machines and computers, every letter, memo, and report had to be typed many times. If you made one mistake, you typed it again. Secretaries drafted, corrected, and retyped in an almost endless loop. Offices had typing pools (dozens of women) making enough perfect copies for everyone. There was no backspace key!

Remington Noiseless Typewriter, 1925–1930

Gift of Defense Supply Association

View object record

Secretarial work became "women's work" with the perfection of the typewriter in the early 1900s. Because typewriters required dexterity and repetition, many believed that women were better suited to be secretaries—and they could be paid less.

Tuch–Rite Learning System, 1957

Gift of Louise Anne Marler

Typewriters were expensive. You could practice at home by using the Tuch–Rite keyboard and listening to instructions on the vinyl record that came with it.

View object record

Dictaphone, around 1912

Gift of Gladys C. Read and Oliver Read

View object record
Gregg Shorthand Manual, 1940

Gregg Shorthand Manual, 1940

Gift of Robert J. Blodgett

View Object Record

Typing a letter was time-consuming! First, the boss dictated the letter into a Dictaphone like this one. Next, the secretary would transcribe what she heard using shorthand. Then she would type the letter without making any mistakes. After that, the supervisor would edit and make revisions. She would then type it again.

Pens and Mechanical Pencils, 1900s–1950s

Pens and pencils were symbols of secretarial work and given as gifts to "office girls."

Previous
Next