College Quarterly
Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
Reviews The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting
Darren Wershler-Henry
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The job of the secretary, like almost all occupations, has had better times and worse times. It has been transformed by technology and restructured by several sorts of sexisms. The social status and the specific functions of secretaries have been altered, downgraded, modified, upgraded and even revolutionized over the course of almost two centuries.

There was a time when the word “secretary” (especially when coupled with the modifier “general”) bespoke power and authority, or at least the illusion thereof. Think General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Think Secretary-General of the United Nations. There was also a time when a demure young woman with white gloves might modestly say: “I’m just a secretary,” perhaps not realizing that she was the only one who knew what was really going on in the office, and where all the skeletons were buried.

Until well past the middle of the nineteenth century, the occupation of secretary was almost exclusively a male preserve. The prevailing prejudice at the time was that women were unable to keep a secret, the essential element in the word secretary. The proliferation of paper in the modern office setting had not yet begun. Secretaries were confidential assistants and advisors as much as clerical aids. With the advent of the typewriter, however, offices became memo factories and, although male domination was initially justified by the belief that typewriting was a task so punishing to the body that fragile female fingers could not be expected to bash away at those metal keyboards without incurring serious physical damage, it did not take long for the job to fall victim to what Frederick Taylor would soon describe as scientific management and Harry Braverman would later identify as a process of deskilling

In 1870, Wershler-Henry tells us, only 4% of typists were female; by 1880, the proportion had shifted a decimal place to 40%; in 1910, that number had doubled to over 80%; and, by 1930, over 95% of the paid typewriters were women. What had once been a clever technological innovation became a vehicle for workplace routinization as corporations lined typists up in long rows on the model of the industrial factory, and took the tasks of the secretary, divided them up into stratified skill sets and left the old job of the private secretary mainly to the film industry. By the close of World War II, secretaries, whether cast by Hollywood as a brusque but efficient and loyal boss’s helper, made over in the form of the pretty often witless “love interest,” or the long-suffering, jealous and occasionally murderous “other woman,” the representation of the secretary had become exclusively female. So, in popular culture secretaries were normally cast either as mothers or as lovers, their roles being female first—cleaning up the boss’ mess or supplying eye candy—and important economic contributors a distant second. In any case, no matter how efficient and essential to the smooth function of the organization, they were almost always deferential. Think Della Street.

As the specific job description of the secretary changed, skills such as taking short-hand flourished for a time and were then turned into a secondary specialization called stenography. Learning to manage complex filing systems was also valued, and then reduced to the chores of file clerk. This kind of division of labour was nothing, however, compared to the effects of the attendant technology in the form of the keyboard. Now attached to computers, fax machines and sundry other office devices, the keyboard thoroughly revolutionized the role of the secretary, and the typewriter was the central machine in this historical process.

In his sometimes insightful and often humourous history of typewriting, Darren Wershler-Henry provides an affectionate, often reverential account of the origins, evolution and supercession of the standard and eventually the electric typewriter by the instantaneous communications technology that has not only come to dominate public and private corporate communications, but private messaging as well.

The pioneers are introduced, described and evaluated according to their contributions to the evolution of what is arguably the most important office machine in the history of business. Remington is there, as is William Seward Burroughs (though his grandson, Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs gets mentioned on twenty-six pages, compared with the old man’s two). The technology is given pride of place, of course, and some of the rhetoric that proclaimed typewriters as liberating hapless humans from “pencil slavery” is reproduced with just a hint of nostalgia. It is worth recalling that typewriters did not come silently and slyly into our world, but were understood to be transformative and were celebrated in terms reminiscent of the breathlessness with which communications media from the radio and television to microfiche and electronic books were announced, some to become successful innovations and others to be junked.

The power relations and gender discrimination in office organization are also discussed. Wershler-Henry does not overdo the political economy of clerical work, for he is out to inform and entertain more than to investigate the dimensions of dominance and submission, much less to indulge in feminist analysis. Still, he finds it noteworthy that, from the outset, the growing number of women who found the office to be a congenial workplace as contrasted to those of domestic service, factory labour, sales and prostitution were systematically excluded from any path that would lead to positions of managerial authority and the inflated remuneration that went with them.

Instead, Wershler-Henry focuses on the representation of typists and stenographers in popular literature and the media. These are more familiar topics, and we can all relate to his stories. Much more engaging, however, are his tangential treks into the real world and its human chroniclers. We are reminded of Sherlock Holmes’ observation that each typewriter (and typist) has a distinct signature, a fact that became crucial in the real-life prosecution of Alger Hiss. He passes some time talking of probability theory and the monkeys who might, one day in darkest infinity, type out a perfect copy of Hamlet. He finds time to mention the cultural influence of real authors including Goethe and Kafka, Tolstoy and Melville, Kurt Vonnegut and the authors of the underground publications known as “samizdat” who, as much as Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, brought down the Soviet Union. He also tosses in some amusing remarks about cartoonist Don Marquis and his far-famed character Archie the cockroach, doomed to type out messages in lower case, because a cockroach has a lot of trouble pressing the shift key and a letter simultaneously. This last reference certainly provoked nostalgia in me.

There are, of course, necessary chapters on QWERTY, by which the current configuration of letters on a keyboard is known. Those unaware that there are other possible configurations—some considerably more efficient—will perhaps be surprised to learn that QWERTY became dominant precisely because it was intended to slow down, rather than speed up the typing process. It triumphed—as did IBM clones over Apple computers and VHS videotapes over Beta—for reasons that had nothing to do with some uncontested Darwinian notion of superiority, but for much less defensible reasons instead. (A slightly more complete recitation of this story, by the way, is provided in Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology” in his collection Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991.)

In the end, this book’s solid introduction to the evolutionary arc of the typewriter is valuable not just for the subject matter it presents, but as an example of how we may think usefully about important tools that have, at one time or another, transformed some important aspect of human life. Railway locomotives—archetypal technologies for Freudian fantasists—are probably still near the top of the list for amateur antiquarians, with sailing ships and antique firearms coming close behind. With typewriters, Wershler-Henry brings us indoors and into the workplace where most of us live the greater part of our waking lives. He tells a good tale and also invites us to some useful reflection on words that describe our humanity more compellingly than we might have imagined: “typewriting,” he concludes, “always implied the presence of at least one person somewhere in the assemblage. Computing does not. When computing disappears,” he asks, “will anyone even notice its absence?”

I am pleased to report that this question was raised in a book. Though I am “typing” these words on a computer keyboard and acknowledge that they are destined to be floated off into cyberspace, I am glad to know that, despite the fact that typewriters seem to have been eclipsed, books have not. The future of computing and the decline of literacy seem to go hand-in-hand. So, I will reflect on these matters, content that I still own two typewriters—one an Olivetti standard and one an IBM Selectric—which I have packed away with my record turntables, just in case we are permitted one day to return to a more innocent scratchy vinyl and clackety-keyboarded (which is to say a more human) time.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology