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Century of the Office: 1913-1919

Century of the Office: 1913-1919

Thanks to developments in technology, design and society more broadly, the office has changed a lot over the last century. In the first part of our new blog series, we take a look at what it was like to work in the office in the early 1900s. (Be warned: itΓÇÖs cold, dark and male-dominated.)

Welcome to the office c. 1913

The typical office during this period was characterised by dark wooden desks and heavy furnishings. While managers would have their own offices, more junior employees sat in open plan offices, sometimes arranged in rows resembling a Victorian classroom.

Feeling chilly? These buildings had no double-glazing, insulation or heating systems to keep workers warm. Coal fires were still the main way of keeping buildings warm and gas lamps were the most common form of lighting ΓÇô nowhere near as efficient as todayΓÇÖs electric lighting.

Office workers

Most office workers and nearly all managers during this period were men. Although women made up 29% of the workforce at the turn of the century, most of the roles open to them were in factories and retail work. Those women who did manage to secure an office job typically found themselves in the typing pool or doing secretarial work. Office work wasnΓÇÖt considered respectable for well-educated women, who were mostly from the upper echelons of society.

But what the workplace lacked in gender diversity, it made up for in age range. The school leaving age in 1901 was just twelve, rising to thirteen in 1918. At the other end of the scale, minimal provisions for retirement meant that 40% of men over seventy-five continued to work. For the average worker, that could mean a lot of hours in the office.

In 1914, the war brought about a temporary change in this dynamic; while men headed off to war, more women and older men headed into the office to fill the gap. However, following demobilisation in 1918-20, thousands of men returned from the war needing work and a large proportion of women left the workplace (although not always by choice).


The biggest difference between the office in 1913 and the office in 2013 is the technology ΓÇô or lack of it.

Most offices didnΓÇÖt have a telephone, so day-to-day communication was by letter. Urgent messages were sent by telegram or, if the recipient was local, by sending an errand boy out with a note. It all seems so sedate (or slow) compared with todayΓÇÖs range of almost instant communication methods.

The main form of desktop tech was the typewriter. Invented in the 1800s in a dome-like shape, by the 1910s it had assumed the familiar shape which we still recognise today, complete with QWERTY keyboard layout. However, only junior office workers had typewriters ΓÇô managers dictated, while a secretary or assistant would type it up.

For doing complex calculations, workers used a comptometer ΓÇô a large, heavy device which looked like a numerical typewriter. Remarkably, these were still in use in a very similar form right up until the mid-1970s.

ItΓÇÖs safe to say that life in the office for our grandparents and great-grandparents was completely different from today. Would you want to go back?

What do you think? Have office workers today got it easy? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image: General Office of J.C. Morris Co. Ltd., 1917 by Covert via LSU Digital Library, Louisiana State Museum via Wikimedia Commons.

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Author: | May 15, 2013 | 0 Comments

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