The American workplace in 1950: no yawning!

Posted on October 18, 2019. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , |

We were roaming around YouTube and found this educational filmstrip, as they used to call them, from 1950 called Office Etiquette. This Encyclopedia Britannica artifact begins as you’d expect: rows of white high-school girls typing away in typing class so they can be secretaries. But then a few real surprises are introduced. Seconds in, the camera pans out a little and you see two white boys on the other side of the room. Boys? Learning to type? Are they going to be secretaries? You’re so surprised to see the boys that at first you don’t notice what next becomes apparent: not only are the boys mixed in with the girls, but at least three black girls are mixed into the class. A filming location is never given, but the opening credits say that Office Etiquette is an “EBF Human Relations Film”; we were happily surprised to see sex- and race-integration in at least one U.S. high school in 1950.

That’s one of the reasons we always love watching these forgotten little films–they almost always reveal some challenge to your blanket presuppositions.

We follow our narrator, Joan Spencer, after graduation and into the job market. When she fills out her application, we see her write “None” under the “Experience” section. We instantly remembered the smarting embarrassment of this painful, first-time job applicant experience from our own past work lives. (We did notice, by stopping the film, that Joan writes “South High, Ridgeton” under “Education” – does any HP reader know where this was?)

Joan is hired, and quickly sizes up the office. We do, too. Was there anything worse than the early- and mid-century American office? Even at this small operation, there are 12 desks crammed into one open space, and everyone is just so exposed. The desks are pushed together to make long tables, so your desk isn’t even private. Each desk has a phone and a typewriter and nothing else. No personal items on your desk. No privacy. No way to do anything but work–no private phone calls, no drinking coffee, no eating, nothing at that desk. Everyone can see everything you do. And the noise; the racket of 12 people typing at once would have been deafening. Welcome to the real reason why the boss had an office with a door that closed. How would you be able to talk on the phone with all that cacophony of key-clacking?

On Joan’s first day, her supervisor meets her in the boss’ office and takes her to the place where she can leave her things. It’s hard to imagine going to work in an office and leaving your hat (of course) and coat and purse in an employee common area. Again, no access to any personal item at any time during the work day. It’s so dehumanizing. When Joan puts in extra time at home, after work, to learn all the forms the company uses, she sits at a desk or table with a lovely bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase. No such luck at work.

Joan is shown to her seat and is so nervous she can barely look at the woman who is working one foot away from her at “her” desk. But she reports that “the girls” took her to lunch that first day, and one can’t help but sigh for the days when office workers took an hour for lunch, offsite, rather than eating at their desks while they worked. Joan makes friends, and is quickly written into the list of the office bowling team members.

Joan’s first screw-up is one that, again, we can all relate to: she makes an error in her dictation, and when the unbelievably genial executive who dictated it shows her the error, Joan argues with him about it, saying she is right. She quickly learns to own her mistakes “instead of arguing about them or offering alibis. I learned to ask when I wasn’t sure, instead of making a wild guess.” This is indeed workplace wisdom.

So is the hilarious scene where one of the “girls” eats a candy at her desk in the most incredibly messy way, with great bravado.

But then we get into lessons from the past as a foreign country. The lesson “use office hours to do office work” is illustrated by an older man slyly lifting up the corner of an enormous ledger to read a newspaper hidden underneath. He reads the sports page for approximately 2.3 seconds, then puts the ledger back down. Again, we can’t emphasize enough that you are no longer a human being once you sit down to work, and every second that isn’t spent at lunch must be spent working. This is easier to enforce when everyone can see everything you’re doing at all times.

One young woman types a love letter, one makes a personal telephone call. At least both these people are truly wasting company time. But then a man is shown–brace yourself–stopping his writing for 1.4 seconds to yawn. He did not “manage his time so he could put in a full day’s work.” Stopping work to yawn is an unforgivable demonstration of slacking.

Joan has to bust on Jimmy later on, who reads something on her desk in a nosy way. “You know you shouldn’t do that, Jimmy,” she says, and he responds “Do whaaaaat?” in a very annoying way.

She works her way up the ladder to become the boss’ personal secretary, then head of HR. Again, it’s refreshing to see a young woman negotiate a business call while the boss is busy, and be promoted to top management. It’s sad that this is as uncommon in 2019 as it was in 1950. The film ends with Joan accepting the meager application of another young woman fresh out of typing class. We have the feeling that this new girl will also succeed, and the overall attitude of the film is uplifting. The office was physically oppressive, but in this filmstrip, it at least offers some equality.

 

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