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When the typewriter was introduced in the mid-1870s, few women worked in business.  As the machine became common in offices during the 1880s, it not only was associated with financial success in the workplace, but also encouraged the employment of women in business.  In 1881, the YWCA in New York City offered a typing course for working-class women, who saw typing skills as a chance to acquire higher paying and more prestigious employment than as factory workers or seamstresses.  Salaries for typists were also higher than for schoolteachers or nurses, two of the few middle-class occupations open to women.  Employers, however, were initially criticized for displacing male office workers (considered heads of households) with lesser-paid females.  Office managers argued that female hands were more nimble than male hands and therefore better able to manipulate the typewriter keyboard.

Mrs. M. A. Saunders of New York was one of the first women to became a professional typist, and her talent soon earned her a position as a sales agent for the typewriter manufacturing firm of Locke, Yost, & Bates.  The September 26, 1891 issue of Harper’s Weekly carried an advertisement for “Ladies and Gentlemen” to sell Hall typewriters, with the ad illustration showing a woman operating the machine.  By the end of the 1880s, about 50,000 American women were working in offices, most as typists or stenographers, and in the early decades of the twentieth century, women increasingly dominated clerical positions.  Although jobs as typists and other office staff broadened employment opportunities for women, they were restricted from climbing up the corporate ladder once hired.  That situation contrasted with the older business model in which males often moved upward from office boy to clerk to manager.  The most for which women could hope was to manage the typing pool or bookkeeping department.  A short verse from the Harper’s Weekly of October 12, 1907 poked fun at the incompetence of “The Typewriter Girl.”  By contrast, a comparison in the December 30, 1911 issue asserted that a female typist expended more energy than a male coalheaver.

Harper's Weekly References
1) September 26, 1891, p. S739, col. 3
illustrated ad, women sales agents

2) October 12, 1907, p. 1505, col. 1
verse, “The Typewriter Girl”

3) December 30, 1911, p. 25, col. 3
“Coalheaver vs. Typewriter”

Sources Consulted

Gugliotta, Angela, and Stephanie Ogle.  “The First Expert Type-Writer Operator,” History of American Technology, Bryant College, http://web.Bryant.edu/~history/h364proj/sprg_01/gugliotta/articles.htm

Lubar, Steven, and Kathleen Kendrick. “Looking at Artifacts, Thinking About History,” the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, http://educate.si.edu/ap/essays/looking.htm

Schlereth, Thomas J.  Victorian America:  Transformations in Everyday Life (NY:  Harper Collins, 1991).

Sutherland, Daniel E.  The Expansion of Everyday Life:  1860-1876 (NY:  Harper & Row, 1989).

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