Home Collections Women At Work: Professional Labor Office Workers
Office Workers

Earl H. Barber Collection
Mss 75 1910-1969
The business records of Earl Huntington Barber (1883-1974) contain detailed information on work performed by Barber's assistant, Mary Hagerty, as well as women's appeals to the Boston Department of Public Utilities.

Boston Chamber of Commerce Collection
Mss 881 1872-1949
Includes a file of records of the Forewomen's Council of Boston (from 1922 to 1924), information on office workers, and some materials on civic and municipal affairs involving women (from 1911 to 1930).

Dover Green Water Company Collection
Mss 702 (1936) 1949-1956
The papers of a small, private water company in Dover, Massachusetts, record the work of the administrative staff of the mid-twentieth-century Boston law firm that transacted its business.

Louis E. Kirstein Collection
Mss 776 1909-1942
The office files of Louis Kirstein, Vice-president of Filene's of Boston (1911-1942), contain material throughout on the professional role of his secretary; correspondence with women working for charities; material on women working at Filene's; and personal correspondence with his sister, wife, and daughters.

Manufacturers' Research Association Collection
Mss 883 1922-1932
The records of a Boston, Massachusetts, association for the exchange of information, organized by Massachusetts firms in different industries, contain materials on office procedures, as well as employment conditions of clerical workers.

B.S. Pray and Company Collection
Mss 766 1868-1926
The correspondence of a Boston, Massachusetts, import-export firm contains letters to the wives of business relations and employees.

Felix M. Warburg Collection
Mss 783 1912-1936
The office files of Felix Moritz Warburg (1887-1937), investment banker in New York, contain material on secretarial work, payroll records of Warburg's domestic staff in 1919 and 1932, and personal correspondence with various women.

Click for larger image
The $100,000.00 Typewriter, exhibited by the Underwood Company at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition.

The office was an exclusively male domain in the nineteenth century, and "clerk" was the entry position for many young men anxious to rise in business and industry. Late nineteenth-century office mechanization and proliferation of paper work effected a complete gender reversal in the office population. By 1930, the vast majority of office workers were women.

As with other industries, mechanization and female labor brought along devaluation—both monetary and cultural—of skilled labor. Office machines became gender-identified. The postcard reproduced above depicts the 14-ton typewriter the Underwood Company exhibited at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition of 1915. Advertised as "An Exact Reproduction of the Machine You Will Eventually Buy," this machine was “writing daily at the Underwood Exhibit." Sixteen neatly dressed businesswomen, bent over their tasks, seem to be using the giant typewriter (1728x its actual size) as their office.

Exclusively female, twentieth-century office work was no longer a stepping stone to higher echelons in the company. Office work had become an end in itself, and would remain so for most of the twentieth century. Women punched cards, filed, added, typed, and made coffee, and the only stamp they put on the millions of reams of paperwork they produced was a slashed reference found at the bottom of most company letters: ER/cl. By the 1970s, under the influence of the women’s movement which decried the dead-end "pink collar ghetto," office workers began to demand pay commensurate with skill, and entry into management level positions.

Home Collections Women At Work: Professional Labor Office Workers
Copyright © 2010 President and Fellows of Harvard College