“Away From My Desk: The Office From Beginning to End” by Jill Lepore. The New Yorker, 5/12/2014.
At the Hagley Museum, the restored gunpowder works of the fledgling DuPont company along the Brandywine River, you can see the nineteenth century office of conservative Boss Henry du Pont in a small separate building behind the family residence. An old-fashioned office even in its day, Boss Henry continued to use oil lamps and quill pens when the rest of America had switched to electric lighting and steel-nibbed pens. It looks like it came right out of Charles Dickens. Eerily quiet now, it must have once been a beehive of activity.
That was a time when work was tightly integrated with daily living. Boss Henry could monitor the activity in his house from his office window. His house, high on the river bank above the powder works, had a balcony from which he would bark orders to the workers below. An early employee, Jacques Antoine Bidermann, son of a Swiss financial backer, once lived in the house along with the du Pont family (and eventually married one of the daughters).
By the time of my childhood, work and living had parted ways. My father got up early each weekday morning, dressed in a suit, and went off to central Philadelphia by public transportation. He returned each evening with the Bulletin tucked under his arm. Exactly what he did during those hours, I had no idea. C. Wright Mills wrote in his book of that time, White Collar, “Each day men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and weekend.” I understood “work” was something my father did out of necessity, but it must have been somewhat pleasant. He returned tired, but stimulated and in good spirits.
How work evolved from Boss Henry to my father and then to me is described in a new book, “Cubed,” by Nikil Saval. The crux of the story is the rise and fall of the status of the clerk. Boss Henry no doubt had a clerk to help keep order, but the role of the clerk really expanded with the new business model that divided the simple task of making and selling into inventing, manufacturing, accounting, shipping, and marketing, each with its own clerk. The clerks gained inside knowledge of the company’s workings and often rose in the organization. Pierre Samuel du Pont, of Longwood Gardens, hired John Rascob right out of high school as a clerk who rose to be treasurer of the DuPont company, then of General Motors, and finally, on his own, the builder of the Empire State Building. The 1967 play and movie, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” is the story of a mail room clerk moving up to head the company. It is a comedy because by then such a journey was ridiculous fantasy, but once it was very possible.
Clerks lost their status and mobility as they became more numerous. Following the example of factories, office tasks became further subdivided to require less skill. Accounting became accounts payable, accounts receivable, auditing, and the comptroller. A clerk’s inside knowledge was only of a minuscule fraction of the total operation. Their duties became so simple and repetitious, women were thought to be more suited for the jobs. In 1880, clerks were less than 5% of the workforce, 186,000, and nearly all were men. By 1910, four million people worked in offices, and almost half were women. Clerks now sat on chairs with wheels at rows of metal desks, “The Metal Efficiency Desk,” designed by the Metal Office Furniture Company, now Steelcase. Wooden desks were the perks of upper management. Larger offices had all-women steno pools to do the drudgery of typing. Banks of switchboard operators were all women. “Clerk” came to imply a woman, except for parts of the mail room that required the strength of a man (they thought).
Work and living were coming back together when I started at a suburban laboratory in 1960. I lived within a mile and walked there every day. In summers, I biked so I could come home for lunch. My coworkers also lived in nearby communities, and our families met in the summers at the pool and tennis courts on the company campus. We had camera clubs, bowling leagues, bus trips, and even summer square dancing that drew us back after working hours.
The traditional office continues to evolve into Silicon-Valley playrooms, shared work spaces, and even work-at-home-in-your-jammies-over-the-Internet. Whether any of these models will survive into the future remains to be seen.
In the 1957 Spenser Tracy–Katherine Hepburn movie “Desk Set,” Tracy introduces a computer (that he calls an “electronic brain”) into Hepburn’s clerical department, saying it will relieve the worker from routine and repetitive tasks. She sarcastically replies with a disarming smile, “I think you could safely say that it will provide more leisure for more people.”