The following table provides data on the number of US clerical workers (defined to include bookkeepers, cashiers, accountants, clerks (excluding clerks in retail stores), stenographers, and typists), and the share of these that were women.
US Clerical Workers, 1870-1930
Source for table: Kwokel-Folland (1994), p. 4.
One explanation for the increase in the share of clerical workers accounted for by women was an increase in the female labor force participation rate in the economy as a whole, and hence an increase in the share of the total labor force accounted for by women. The female labor force participation rate increased from 20.6% in 1900 to a band between 23.7% and 25.8% during 1910-1940. This increase may have resulted in part from declining fertility rates, expanding availability of labor-saving products for the home, increasing educational opportunities for women, and increasing real wages.
Anderson (1976, pp. 52, 56) reports the following figures for commercial clerks in Britain:
British Commercial Sector Clerical Workers, 1841-1911
Anderson (1876, p. 52) reports that in 1911, 22,000, or 26.5 percent, of the 83,000 clerks in the British civil service were female.
Ratios of men to women varied among types of clerical workers. For example, in Chicago in 1900, 19 percent of clerks, 30 percent of bookkeepers, accountants, and cashiers, and 83 percent of stenographers (who wrote and transcribed shorthand) and typists were women. These percentages all increased over time. In 1920, they were 35 percent, 45 percent, and 93 percent, respectively. (Fine 1920, p. 46) The following table shows in greater detail that a rapidly increasing share of stenographers and typists were women. According to Fine (1990, p. 20), most women who worked as stenographers or typists were in fact stenographer-typists who performed both functions.
US Stenographers and Typists, 1870-1930
Source for table: Kwokel-Folland (1994), p. 30.
Goldin & Katz (1995) report that in 1890 a person generally needed a high school diploma to obtain a job as an office worker, and that around 1900 high schools were elite institutions that prepared the children of the wealthy and the fortunate for office jobs and to attend college. Goldin & Katz further report that between 1890 and 1914 ordinary office workers earned almost twice as much as ordinary production workers. Few production workers during that period had attended high school. Bjelopera (2005, p. 17) reports that in Philadelphia "In the late nineteenth century the predominantly male clerical workforce earned salaries comparable to those among the upper echelons of the skilled workforce." In 1890, "Male office workers averaged $925.70 a year in pay; female clerical worked averaged $433.12. The average yearly wage for the city's entire male workforce...[was] $609.97. For women, it was $301.48."
Davies (1982, p. 57) reports that in the late decades of the 19th century, females accounted for more than half of high school graduates, while far more men than women graduated from college. "Thus a man who had enough education and literacy skills...to obtain a job as a clerical worker was also probably educated enough...in many cases to attain...a managerial or professional position. As a consequence, the supply of men available for clerical work was considerably diminished."
Anderson (1976, p. 2) states that in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century, "Women were increasingly employed as low-status clerks, typists and telephonists, particularly in large-scale offices which grew alongside, though did not replace, the small counting houses of mid-Victorian commerce.
Employment of Women in Telegraph and Telephone Operating Rooms
A number of books and articles document the transformation of clerical work from an almost exclusively male occupation in 1880 to one in which the numbers of males and females were roughly equal in 1920. (Fine 1990, Kwokel-Folland 1994) Before the mid-1880s, with two exceptions offices relied almost exclusively on males as clerical workers. One exception, in both England and the U.S., was telegraph and telephone operating rooms.
Employment of Women in US Federal Government Offices
A second exception was US federal government offices.
By 1854, the Patent Office employed female copyists who worked at home and were paid 10 cents per 100 words copied. During 1854-55, Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross in 1881, worked as a confidential clerk for the Commissioner of the Patent Office. She was the first woman employed in a regular federal government position with the same salary as a male clerk ($1400 per year). However, in 1855 the Secretary of the Interior, who opposed employment of women, reduced her position from clerk to copyist, and she was paid 10 cents per 100 words copied. In 1857 her position was eliminated, but in 1860 she returned to her position as a copyist. (Source: National Park Service; Charles J. Robertson, Temple of Invention, 2006, p. 46)
Thus, by 1869 "Female copyists had been employed [by the Patent Office] to work in their own homes for many years and were paid at 10 cents per 100 words copied. At the beginning of 1869, about 65 women were employed to work at home. An act was passed on March 3, 1869, authorizing 53 female copyists to be employed to work within the confines of the Patent Office Building, at a salary of $700 per year. Six rooms were set aside for their work when they began on July 1, and it was soon found that their work was fully equivalent in quality and quantity to that of the male clerks doing the same work at $900 per year. The number of male clerks was reduced, and Commissioner Foote recommended equal pay for equal work." (Dobyns, 1994, Chap. 28) Ames (1876, p. 366) reported that “In the Patent Office, fifty-two women clerks are allowed by law. Ten or twelve women have work given them from the Patent Office, which they do at their homes. This work, as well as that done in the Office, consists chiefly of the drawing of models.” In 1878, the Patent Office employed a number of female clerks as well as two females as junior assistant patent examiners. ("The Patent Office and How to Repair its Losses," Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1878)
The Treasury Department began employing women in clerical positions in 1862, during the Civil War. The first women were hired to use scissors to cut newly printed sheets of currency into individual bills. Large numbers of women were soon used in the production of new currency, the replacement of damaged currency, and the destruction of worn out currency. (Mary Clemmer Ames, Ten Years in Washington, 1876, pp. 369-81; Mrs. John A. Logan, Thirty Years in Washington, 1901, p. 242) The engraving to the right shows female clerks at the Redemption Bureau, Treasury Building, "Counting Worn and Defaced Greenbacks, and Detecting Counterfeits." (Ames 1876, p. 355)
1866, Alexander Delmar joined the Treasury Department as the Director of its
Bureau of Statistics, which was responsible for compiling U.S. import statistics
from customs data and similar tasks. Delmar reported that, upon arriving,
"I found that among my clerks was a number of ladies. The ladies, I found,
were employed solely in the wearisome and wholly useless service of copying the
outgoing letters and accounts of the nascent bureau--not copying them with the
[letter copying] press, but with the pen, [making] copies of the copies already
made in the letter-press book. I put an end to it." Delmar put the female clerks
to work entering data on U.S. imports and the like into ledgers that were used
to compile government statistics. Delmar further reported that he had not
previously seen women employed in comparable clerical positions, that
"women made the best of clerks," and that at various times he had 60 to
70 female clerks under his supervision. By contrast, he reported, "In the
other bureaus of the Treasury where ladies were employed, they were used to copy
letters, count fractional currency, or perform some other merely mechanical
function." While Delmar was at the Treasury Department, female clerks were
paid $900 to $1200 per year while male clerks were paid $1200 to $1800 per year.
(Delmar 1874; see also Ames 1876, p. 359) These salaries were considerably higher than average salaries for
clerks outside the federal government. (Goldin & Katz 1995)
Further, Ames (1876, pp. 358-59) stated that “The Quarter-master-General’s Office, which is a division of the War Department, has been almost exclusively set apart for the widows, daughters, and sisters of officers of army or navy, killed or injured in the war. Their work is the copying, recording, and registering of the letters of the government. No men are employed in these offices. Their superintendent is a lady. Her duties are identical with those of the head of any other bureau—she receives only the stipend of the lowest male clerk, twelve hundred dollars.”
After telegraph operating rooms and US federal
government offices, the first employers of female clerical workers were life
insurance companies. Kwolek-Folland (1994, p. 30) reports that a Massachusetts
life insurance company hired its first female clerk in 1866, and that
Metropolitan Life hired its first female clerk in 1877. The Prudential Insurance Co. began to employ female clerks
in the UK in 1871. (Jordan 1996)
Fine (1990, p. 21) reports that "Of the female clerical workers listed in the 1890 [Chicago] census, 55.8 percent worked as clerks and copyists, 21.7 percent were bookkeepers and accountants, and 22.6 percent had jobs as stenographer-typists."
By 1890, a journal stated in connection with typewriting: "In every large down-town building in New York there are now employed dozens and, in some cases, hundreds of women. Any bright girl in from three to six months may obtain sufficient facility with the type-writer to make herself valuable in an office. The salaries of good type-writers average in New York from fifteen to twenty dollars a week, the rank and file earning from ten to twelve dollars." (Chautauquan, quoted in the Thirty-Second Annual Catalogue of the Albany Business College and School of Short-Hand and Type Writing, Albany, NY, 1890)
Numerous female as well as male clerks were employed by the US Census Bureau in 1890 to count the U.S. population using Hollerith electric tabulating machines. (The image to the left shows female clerks working on the 1890 Census. Scientific American, Aug. 30, 1890.) According to the superintendent of that work, on the peak day of the count, "The average number counted by the women clerks was 9,590 families and by the men clerks, 6,587 families. These facts, and indeed the record of the entire six weeks, show that women are better adapted to this particular line of work than men. They are more exact in touch, more expeditious in handling the schedules, more at home in adjusting the delicate mechanism of the machine, and apparently more ambitious to make a good record." ("The Hollerith System in Census Work," Manufacturer and Builder, Sept. 1890, p. 197)
E. H. Beach, Tools of Business, 1905, p. 8, reports that "In many of the largest business houses in America the calculating machine is operated by girls, who not only are employed at a comparatively small compensation, but at the same time become so expert in the use of the machines, that everything in the way of computations are given to them."
Anderson (1976, p. 56) states that prior to the first world
war, women were employed in the British civil service "not only as copy
clerks and typists but as telegraphists and telephonists."
Beginning in the mid-19th century, many private business colleges were founded in the U.S. to train students to be clerical workers in commercial offices. Such colleges were slower to develop in Britain, which relied more heavily on an apprentice system. According to Anderson (1976, p. 90), the Reports on Technical Education of 1867-68 showed that Belgium, France and the United States were, in important respects, ahead of Britain in the field of commercial education. Britain at that time had no institution worthy of comparison with the Paris School of Commerce founded in 1820, the Superior Institute of Commerce in Antwerp or American's chain of thirty commercial colleges." Anderson (p. 89) also reports that "the Director of the School of Commerce in the University of Liverpool declared in 1911 that 'England has contrived for a long time to undertake a very respectable share of this planet's commerce without any system of commercial instruction worth mentioning....'"
In 1865-66, eighty-nine percent of students at the Peirce School, a business college in Philadelphia, were men. (Bjelopera, p. 67) Ninety percent of the students listed in the 1868 catalog of the Dirigo Business College in Augusta, ME, were men. Fine (1990, p. 10) reports that the percentage of students in private business colleges in Chicago who were men declined from almost 95% in 1871 to about 68% in 1892. During 1889-90, 61% of the students at the Albany Business College and School of Short-Hand and Type-Writing were men. Over 99% of those on a list showing the place of employment of former Commercial Department students were men, while the figure was 44% for a similar list of former School of Short-Hand students. (Catalogue of the Albany Business College, Albany, NY, 1890.) During 1890-91, 79% of the students at the Rochester Business University were men. (Circular and Catalogue, Rochester Business University, Rochester, NY, 1891). The latter's high percentage of male students may have been a result of its close association with the YMCA, with which it shared a building. In any event, the catalog generally refers to the students as men. As to distinctions between men and women, the catalog states: "While the demand for lady stenographers is steadily increasing, the supply has much more nearly met the demand than has the supply of young men stenographers. There are many positions in business which ladies cannot fill, on account of other duties than stenographic work which are involved." The catalog also states that "young women are coming into favor with business men as bookkeepers, clerks, correspondents, etc." The share of students at the Peirce School who were men declined from 74% in 1893-94 to 60% in 1920-21. (Bjelopera, p. 68)
The 1897 catalog of the Eastman Business College, Poughkeepsie, NY, contains insights into the office occupations for which women were trained near the end of the 19th century. The college had a Business Department, which trained students for work as bookkeepers and in banks; a School of Shorthand, which trained students in shorthand, typing, duplicating, and filing; a School of Penmanship, which prepared students to teach writing and pen art; and a School of Telegraphy, which trained students as telegraph operators. The discussion of the Business Department states that "Young ladies, in increasing numbers, are employed as accountants among mercantile firms." Classroom photos show that a substantial minority of students in the bookkeeping classes were women. However, other photographs show that no women were being trained in the mock bank or in the mock railway and express office.
The discussion of the School of Shorthand in the same catalog states, "More than half of our shorthand students are ladies. No profession affords a better opening for young ladies who desire to earn their own living than does stenography and typewriting. The prejudice against employing young ladies in office work has entirely disappeared, and now, where a few years ago scarcely a lady was to be found at the office desk, there are hundreds of them. Their adaptability to the work has been found fully equal, if not in many instances superior, to young men, especially as typewriter operators. They seem to have an affinity for the little machine." Photographs of typewriting classes during [dates] show that a majority of the students were women. Nevertheless, a substantial minority of the students in the typewriting classes were men. And some employers evidently wanted male typewriter operators; in letters to the college that were included in the catalog, the manufacturers of Smith Premier and Caligraph typewriters specified that they could assist in placement of male operators. The 1914 catalog of the Pennsylvania Business College, Lancaster, PA, reproduces extracts from an address delivered in 1902 by a representative of the Remington Typewriter Co. According to the address, during 1901 in seven of the largest cities Remington placed 16,247 stenographers, of which 29 percent were men. The address states that employers were seeking male stenographers "for a different class of work" than female stenographers, and that there was a severe shortage of male stenographers. Because stenographers' wages were not regulated, and wages were commonly higher for men than women, it is hard to make sense of the statement that the demand for male stenographers exceeded the supply. Apparently, at the margin, many employers would have preferred male over female stenographers if they had been available at similar wages. As a result, the relative wage rate for males was apparently bid up to the point that many employers were unwilling to pay it and therefore could not find as many men as they would like who would accept their offers. (See also Fine (1990), p. 93)
The discussion of
the School of Penmanship in the 1897 catalog of the Eastman
Business School states that "There is no accomplishment more
useful or more commendable than to be able to write an elegant hand. Yet young
ladies seldom attain any perfection in writing. Music and painting, dancing and
clothes, accomplishments beautiful in themselves, are generally predominant.
Many write so illegibly and imperfectly that their letters and manuscripts are
hard to decipher and give the poorest impression of the culture of the
writer." In fact, not one student in the 1897 catalog's photographs of penmanship classes
was a woman. Nothing in the catalog reveals the gender of the students in the
School of Telegraphy. However, a photograph in the Thirty-Fifth Annual Catalogue of the Albany Business College
and School of Short-Hand and Type Writing, Albany, NY, 1894, shows that a
small minority of students in the college's telegraphy class were women.
Backgrounds of Female Clerical Workers
During the late 19th century, female clerical workers came predominantly from middle class backgrounds. In her study of federal clerical workers during 1862-90, Aron (1981) states that "female clerks came from native-born, white, middle-class families....Federal women clerks had been well educated, most having enjoyed the advantage of a secondary education....Not surprisingly, single women comprised the majority....Prior to government employment,...[a] large number had previously taught school, but had found the wages inadequate." Fine (1990) points out that "Women's entrance into clerical work was...related to the increased supply of young, single, and trained women....[D]uring the late nineteenth century, women tended to remain in high school longer than men. Women, therefore, were more qualified for the jobs that were becoming available in the clerical service." Other studies indicate that, outside of Washington, DC (where employment was affected by political patronage), and particularly after 1900, the socio-economic backgrounds of female clerical workers were more diverse, except in one respect: with the exception of those employed in the small share of businesses owned by African-Americans, clerical workers were white. (Fine 1990, Strom 1987, Kwolek-Folland 1994) Referring to both males and females, Bjelopera (p. 5) states that around 1900 clerical workers "came from a variety of class backgrounds. Many children of skilled laborers moved into white-collar occupations, as did the progeny of small-business owners and professionals." Also, "In turn-of-the century Pittsburg, the skilled blue-collar workforce--the labor aristocracy--encouraged its children to enroll in the Commercial Department of the steel town's public high school." (Bjelopera, p. 30)
Costa (2000, p. 108) writes that "At the end of the nineteenth century, clerks and secretaries were trusted male employees familiar with the entire operations of the firm. They were also employees who could be promoted to the top echelons of the company. As firm size increased, as accounting departments within firms grew, and as departments run by middle managers were created, demand for clerical staff increased. The division of labor and specialization increased because the typewriter and other machines, including those for bookkeeping, accounting, and duplicating, allowed firms to hire workers who had either attended commercial schools or taken commercial classes in high school and to put them to work with very little on-the-job training. Many of these workers were women, because the growth in high school education between the 1890s and the 1940s provided them with the necessary general skills. The clerical sector provided them with better pay and cleaner, less arduous work than manufacturing. But because women were expected to leave the labor force upon marriage, they worked at jobs from which they were never promoted, whereas men could rise from office boy to president of the company."
Sexism in the Office
Sexist attitudes are apparent in vintage photos depicting women in secretarial roles. Many early 20th century postcards depict male bosses with their secretaries on their laps, often calling their wives to tell them they will be working late. Other postcards depict wives who arrive at their husbands' offices to find their husbands in compromising situations with their secretaries. Other, generally more recent, vintage photos depict scantily clad young secretaries with their typewriters, sometimes doing a striptease. It seems unlikely that such photos were intended to suggest a sensual relationship between secretaries and typewriters. Rather, it seems likely that the typewriters are merely props that help to convey to the viewer the message that female secretaries are sex objects.
Research in Progress
Bjelopera, Jerome P., City of Clerks: Office
and Sales Workers in Philadelphia, 1870-1920, 2005.
Dobyns, Kenneth W., The Patent Office Pony: A History of
the Early Patent Office, 1994.
Hoogenboom, Ari, The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes,
1988, Chapter 5.
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