Last year I bought my first typewriter. I’ve always been attracted to this object for its nostalgic aspect and what it represents (the writing fantasy) but until now I had no idea that it had been such a striking invention in history not only technologically speaking but also sociologically.
The invention of the typewriter, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was meant to accelerate the writing process. There already had been attempts to mechanize the production of documents but they could not get faster than handwriting so they were not very useful. It was finally in 1868 that the first patent was registered. After configuring the QWERTY keyboard, the inventors produced typewriters in large quantities thanks to their collaboration with the Remington factory1, one of the largest of this period due to its huge success in firearms, and in 1874 the machines were on the market and advertised.
The first Remington typewriter (Source : Imagesfineartamerica.com)
It became successful around 1880, when improvements facilitated the writing tasks. The typewriter marked the transition from handwritten to typewritten documents. Typed letters became more formal and standardized, typewriting came to be thought as mechanical and impersonal, while the handwritten documents became something personal and precious. Then it brought changes to the office world.
Women’s entrance into the business world was enabled by the successful mass-production of the typewriter. As the typewriter became an indispensable item in offices, so did typewriters—the word referring to both the machine and the female typist. The machine liberated women from their “forced” roles of housewives but also condemned them to low-paid and low-status positions. Although the typewriter created many new types of job, and many women entered the paid workplaces as a typists, those women were still bound by that era’s social assumptions and constraints.
Before, secretaries had multiple roles; there was no real division of functions. The positions were traditionally held by men with a clear possibility of promotion. The US Census in 1870 showed that men represented 97,5 percent of the clerical labor force.2
Office with 43 men, and only one woman with a typewriter (1900-1903)
Source : officemuseum.com
However, since the typewriter brought a whole new assignment of tasks, the clerical work changed. Students in business schools (mostly women) even started to specialize in this particular sector, as it was considered full of promise. It may seem surprising for us now but the action of typing was “unnatural” at that time and people had to be taught how to do it. These machines introduced women to the business world, though they occupied secretarial positions with no real possibility of advancement.
As companies manufactured typewriters, they also started to advertise their products. Numerous ads were launched, presenting a woman in a workplace in company of men. The idea was to attract women to secretarial positions and to reassure men. Indeed by attributing the machine to women and presenting typewriting as something which did not require thought (they “simply” had to copy), men felt less threatened. According to Lucy Kellaway for BBC News Magazine (US & Canada), in 1870 there were only 1,000 women typists. In 1961 there were 1,8million.
Although women’s wages in the office were significantly lower than men’s, they were significantly higher than factory wages for women. In A Woman’s place is at the typewriter by Margery Davies we learn that “at the end of the 19th century in northeastern American cities, domestic servants earned $2.00 to $5.00 a week, and factory operatives $1.50 to $8.00 a week, but typists and stenographers earned $6.00 to $15.00 a week, as much as 10 times more than factory and servant work”. They did not have many more options anyway so they considered themselves lucky to have a job and be more independent than other women of their generation.
In addition to their typing ability, female typists also were desirable to employers simply because they were women. Although clerical workers were expected to have the characteristics of a good wife, many businesses were opposed to hiring married women, believing that married women did not take their jobs seriously..3
This brought a new image of women that quickly became stereotypes in the media. A version of this working woman was the very popular Gibson Girl, created by Charles Dana Gibson, who appeared for the first time in Life in 1890.
The Gibson Girl (Source : wikipedia)
The Gibson Girl was the representation of the beautiful and independent woman, hoping for some changes in her social situation. The real change is visible in two pictures, the first one extracted from a 1906 illustrated Fox Typewriters advertisement of a typist dressed in the Gibson girl style with the caption : “Use the New Fox Visible Typewriter because it combines “The Good of the Old and the best of the New”. This last sentence can both apply to the medium and the woman. The use of the Gibson Girl is strategic, she represents the « modern girl » who can be successful and happy at work and at home.
The Fox Typewriter Advertisement (Source : tcjournal.org)
The woman seems to have the attributes of the ideal young woman of the period. The advertisement is actually ambiguous because the location of the picture remains unknown, it could be at home or in an office. Whatever the place, the ad claims that typing (on a Fox) is easy. However, the woman’s pose can be considered as sexual, to attract both men and women. Men because they will want to have that kind of women in their offices and women because they will want to become that kind of woman.
The second one is a photograph from the 1920s. Although I have no information on who made this photo or for what purpose, it sets out a vision of women in the office as playthings, not workers. The woman is ambiguous and provocative. Her skirt is raised, exposing her legs and she is looking directly at the camera. Like the Gibson Girl in the Fox ad, she is not depicted typing, there is not even paper coming out of the typewriter. The setting is also blurry; we cannot guess whether she is in an office or in a more private environment. The two photographs show typewriting as something easy and fun (the two women are smiling). Even though it was an improvement in the image of women, it nevertheless denigrates the typewriter job and the place of women in offices. Working women seem to be object of fantasies more than hard-working clerks.
A photograph from the 1920s (Source : tcjournal.org)
Today women are still barely perceived as leaders, as only 32% of American managers are women and less than 20% are chief executives according to the US Census. Indeed, in 2010, secretary was still the most common job for women. And the trend is not getting lower as a 12% growth is predicted between 2010 and 2020 as Christina Huffington writes for the Huffington Post4.
The typewriters have now been replaced by computers in offices and at home, so why did I buy a typewriter now? The main reason is for the object itself, out of nostalgia; moreover vintage typewriting became something special due to its history and its rarity.
Typewriters introduced women to the business world and were definitely a turning point in terms of progression of society. The item evolved but we could wonder if our vision of women at work did too. Indeed, it is not rare to see “gender scandals” and on social networks where people can express opinions freely it is common to see bad comments about women, working or not. As recently as May, 4th 2015, there was a scandal in France concerning women journalists complaining that men (mostly in politics) were offensive with them, touching them or making some sexual comments during interviews. Women are now accepted at work, and surely the typewriters helped to that, but sometimes it feels like no medium will ever change the vision some men have of women.
1The Remington factory had a huge influence in the typewriting process. Not only did it play an important part in the typewriter commercialization but it also launched the first commercially-marketed computer in 1951.
2Davies Margery, »Women’s place is at the typewriter », Radical America, July-August 1974 https://libcom.org/files/Rad%20America%20V8%20I4.pdf
3 Jackson Sarah, (2009),Typewriters typing Typists. Critical Essay. Louisiana State University http://tcjournal.org/drupal/vol3/jackson
4“Top Job For Women Is Secretary — The Same Today As It Was In 1950”, 02/02/13, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/01/top-job-for-women-secretary-same-as-1950_n_2599560.html