The American workplace in 1950: no yawning!

Posted on October 17, 2019. Filed under: 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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We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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