Office Work after the Civil War
The last third of the nineteenth century witnessed drastic changes in the scale and shape of business enterprise. The small and highly competitive firms that had dominated production in the antebellum United States gave way to giant corporations integrated vertically and horizontally in the merger movement that swept through industry during the 1890s. In the steel, oil, tobacco, food, and meat-packing sectors, to name just a few, such corporations enjoyed virtual monopolies.
As is now well known, profound changes in production techniques accompanied the rise of the trusts. But innovation was not restricted to the shop floor. It also reached upwards into the office, for the increase in the volume of business, coupled with the development of regional, national, and international markets, led to a proliferation of correspondence and inspired the need for more accurate record keeping. As the amount and geographic range of a firm’s activities grew, it became more difficult for that firm to conduct the bulk of its transactions in person. While face-to-face business contacts by no means disappeared, a businessman might choose to pay a bill, order merchandise, or confirm an appointment in writing rather than in person, particularly when the transaction took place between cities. Even after the invention of the telephone, many businesses preferred to keep a written record of transactions rather than having to rely on memory.
As a firm’s operations expanded and became more complex, accurate records of its transactions became more important. A small entrepreneurial butcher did not need very complex records. He might keep a list of which customers owed him money and how much, and of how many pounds of beef and how many pounds of pork he could expect each week from various meat-slaughterers, but he would not need much more. A large meat-packing firm, however, required more complex records: how many head of cattle were fattening in pens in Omaha or Kansas City, and how many were being driven across the plains from points farther west; how much the workers in the slaughterhouses were being paid; how many refrigerated cars were on their way to the eastern cities, and how many on their way back. These records had to be accurate and up-to-date, for the managers needed detailed information at their fingertips in order to make plans for the future. Furthermore, as Harry Braverman has pointed out, firms required elaborate records to guard against fraud both by their own employees and by the companies with which they did business.1
Among the outstanding features of the reorganization of the office was the division of businesses into departments.2 This became necessary as firms grew so large and complex that it was no longer possible for one capitalist, or even a small group, to make all the decisions. The ultimate control of a firm’s capital and direction still rested with the owner or owners, but the more mundane operations were decentralized into various functionally defined departments. The Pennsylvania Railroad management, for example, one of the first to introduce this method of organization, instituted separate offices for accounting and for the supervision of roadbeds and moving stock. It also worked out a more elaborate structure of relations between the major departments and their ancillary units.3
These organizational innovations were accompanied by the subdivision of clerical labor. Before the Civil War there had been four basic clerical jobs in the office: copyist, bookkeeper, messenger or office boy, and clerk. This relatively simple range of occupations was expanded and elaborated following the war, with the division of labor most pronounced in the largest offices. File clerks, shipping clerks, billing clerks and other “semiskilled” workers began to appear. The exact pattern that the division of labor followed in a particular office depended, of course, on the nature of the business at hand. An insurance company might have many billing or file clerks, but no shipping clerks whatsoever; a mail-order house would use an army of shipping and file clerks, but no billing clerks since orders were paid in advance.
Not surprisingly, the most popular change resulted from the introduction of the typewriter. Once it was adopted, stenographers and typists quite rapidly replaced copyists. A stenographer’s job consisted of taking dictation, usually from a firm’s manager or owner, although occasionally also from a higher-level clerical worker, and then transcribing the notes into a letter, report, or whatever. For a while, it was considered rude or disrespectful for a firm to type its correspondence, and some dictation was at first transcribed in a fine longhand. Before long, however, typewriting became the accepted mode of business correspondence, and handwritten letters yielded to typewritten ones. The stenographer was in effect a direct replacement for a copyist, since in general stenography encompassed transcription as well as dictation. The integration of these tasks came about not only because many different systems of shorthand were in use, but also because stenographers tended to add individual quirks or shortcuts to the system being used. Hence the stenographer might be the only one who could read his or her notes. At first glance it would seem that the shift from copyist to stenographer involved no further division of labor. But the fact that typists were being hired as well as stenographers suggests even greater specialization. Take the example of a manufacturer with outstanding debts from thirty customers. He might decide to send each of them a dunning letter couched in the strongest language instead of an invoice with “Third and Final Notice” stamped on it in red ink. He might dictate this letter to a stenographer, who would transcribe it in longhand and pass it on, along with the names and addresses of the overdue debtors, to two or three typists, who would produce as many copies of the letter as necessary. The result was that what had once been done by one kind of clerk, a copyist, was now done by two, a stenographer and a typist. In this example, the typists execute the bulk of the task at hand, and the manufacturer congratulates himself on the efficiency of his system and on the money saved by using a stenographer only where necessary and by using typists whenever possible.
This increasing division of labor constituted a basic change in the organization of office work. In antebellum offices clerical workers were responsible for a wide range of tasks and in some cases their work bore the aspects of a craft. But the division and redivision of clerical tasks meant that an individual clerical worker performed only a small number of tasks in a larger range of operations. This reorganization of work was uneven. It first appeared immediately before the Civil War (the Erie Railroad) and was clearly taking hold by the 1870s.4 Thus the post-Civil War expansion and consolidation of capitalism drastically rearranged the office by partitioning firms into departments and dividing up clerical work into specialized tasks. Another factor which did much to alter the appearance of clerical work, and which had some influence on the changing nature of that work, was technological innovation, with the typewriter being far and away the most important of the new office machines.5
The first record of an attempt to make a writing machine dates to 1714, when the Englishman Henry Mill obtained a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing, whereby all writings whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.”6 Over the next one hundred and fifty years, numerous inventors followed in Mill’s footsteps. The first American to do so was William Austin Burt of Michigan. Curiously enough, the basic principle of his machine was essentially the same as that found in “selectrics,” the newest of contemporary typewriters: “the type was mounted on a rotating, semicircular frame, not on individual type bars, and the idea was to move the wheel around until the desired letter came to the printing point. Then it was pressed down against the paper with a lever.”7 Burt showed his machine to a friend, John P. Sheldon, editor of a Detroit newspaper, who was so taken with the invention and its possibilities that he wrote to President Andrew Jackson in 1829:
This is a specimen of the printing done by me on Mr. Burt’s typographer. You will observe some inaccuracies in the situation of the letters; these are owing to the imperfections of the machine, it having been made in the woods of Michigan where no proper tools could be obtained by the inventor. . . . I am satisfied, from my knowledge of the printing business, as well as from the operation of the rough machine, with which I am now printing, that the typographer will be ranked with the most novel, useful and pleasing inventions of this age.8
Burt’s machine had one major drawback: it was slower than writing by hand. This, perhaps, was the reason that Burt and Sheldon could find no one in Detroit or New York to finance the perfection and manufacture of the typographer. A more fundamental reason for their failure, however, is that in the 1830s the potential value of a writing machine was not readily apparent to businessmen who ran small offices with a few clerks and a relatively small amount of paperwork. Only after the Civil War did an inventor of a writing machine succeed in finding financial backing for it.
That inventor was Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although Sholes is generally referred to as the “Father of the Typewriter,” this is inaccurate, since he was preceded by many others who invented writing machines of various types. According to Bruce Bliven, who relies on the files of claims for patent rights, Sholes was actually the fifty-second man to invent the typewriter.9 A printer, publisher, and civil servant from Milwaukee, Sholes was also an amateur inventor. He first tried his hand at a writing machine in 1867 after reading about another version in Scientific American. By 1869 Sholes was convinced that he and two co-workers had ironed all the kinks out of their machine, and he typed this letter to James Densmore, an acquaintance who was interested in promoting inventions.
You will recollect that in all of our discussions touching a machine for writing, we have held to several fundamental ideas, as essential to success. For instance, that the machine must be simple and not liable to get out of order; that it must work easily and be susceptible of being worked rapidly; and finally, that it be made with reasonable cheapness. To supersede an instrument as handy as the pen every one of these conditions is essential and a failure in any is fatal. The failure of all previous efforts in this direction—which I find on research have been many—are all to be ascribed to a lack in some one of these particulars.10
Sholes believed that his machine had satisfied all his conditions, but Densmore, who by this point had started to provide ready cash for the Sholes group and had entered into a formal partnership with them, was skeptical. For the next few years, their dealings amounted to Densmore insisting on yet further improvements, Sholes grudgingly making them, and Densmore still not being satisfied.
Finally, even Densmore was convinced that the machine was workable. The remaining stumbling block was raising enough capital to finance mass production of the Sholes prototype. Densmore and Sholes had made several attempts to interest a promoter, and while there had been several nibbles, there were no takers. At last Densmore appealed in desperation to his brother Amos for funds, arguing that “the atmosphere is full of aspirations for making a typewriter,” and stressing that, if they did not act quickly, they would be beaten out by others, including the likes of Thomas Alva Edison.11
With the money he raised from his brother, Densmore set up shop in Milwaukee, and production was under way by the summer of 1872. The next step was to distribute the machines as widely as possible, in order that the typewriter might become more familiar in offices, thereby increasing demand. He did manage to sell all of the machines produced in 1872, most of them to telegraphers and shorthand reporters. Government employees and businessmen bought almost none.
Although he sold all of his machines, Densmore made no profits. Still in search of financial backing, he approached the firm of E. Remington and Sons, who were gunmakers in Ilion, New York. The Remington factory was relatively sophisticated, and many of its operations could be adapted to making Densmore’s machine. The Remington executives were interested in the typewriter but drove a hard bargain.
Remington asked Benedict, according to the latter’s recollection:
“What do you think of it?”
“That machine is very crude,” Benedict replied, “but there is an idea there that will revolutionize business.”
“Do you think we ought to take it up?”
“We must on no account let it get away. It isn’t necessary to tell these people that we are crazy over the invention, but I’m afraid I am pretty nearly so.”12
After some negotiating, Remington agreed to manufacture one thousand machines, Densmore paid an advance of ten thousand dollars, and they signed a contract on 1 March 1873. In the spring of 1874, the first machines were finished, and Densmore set out to promote them to Manhattan businessmen for $125 apiece. Sales agencies were set up across the United States but only 400 had been sold by the end of 1874. By and large, purchasers were those who were intrigued by the idea and who could afford to spend $125. Typewriters did not spread like wildfire through the nation’s business offices. One of the first customers was Mark Twain, who saw a typewriter in a Boston shopwindow and went in to inquire. The salesman set his “type girl” to work demonstrating the machine. Impressed by the fact that the demonstrator typed fifty-seven words a minute, Twain bought it on the spot. Upon returning to his hotel, accompanied by his friend and fellow humorist Petroleum V. Nasby, Twain soon felt that he had been gypped, and as he recounted in his autobiography:
We got our slips [upon which the demonstrator had typed her fifty-seven words per minute] and were a little disappointed to find that they all contained the same words. The girl had economized time and labor by memorizing a formula which she knew by heart.
At home I played with the toy, repeating and repeating and repeating “The boy stood on the burning deck” until I could turn out that boy’s adventure at the rate of twelve words a minute; then I resumed the pen for business, and only worked the machine to astonish inquisitive visitors. They carried off reams of the boy and his burning deck.13
This was how Twain remembered the affair many years afterward. At the time he waxed considerably more enthusiastic, as in this letter to his brother (which indicates that Twain’s typewriter had only upper-case letters, as was true of the early machines):
I AM TRYING TO GET THE HANG OF THIS NEW FANGLED WRITING MACHINE, BUT I AM NOT MAKING A SHINING SUCCESS OF IT. HOWEVER THIS IS THE FIRST ATTEMPT I HAVE EVER MADE & YET I PERCEIVE I SHALL SOON & EASILY ACQUIRE A FINE FACILITY IN ITS USE THE MACHINE HAS SEVERAL VIRTUES. I BELIEVE IT WILL PRINT FASTER THAN I CAN WRITE. ONE MAY LEAN BACK ON HIS CHAIR & AND WORK IT. IT PILES AN AWFUL STACK OF WORDS ON ONE PAGE. IT DON’T MUSS THINGS OR SCATTER INK BLOTS AROUND. OF COURSE IT SAVES PAPER. . . . WORKING THE TYPE-WRITER REMINDS ME OF OLD ROBERT BUCHANAN, WHO, YOU REMEMBER, USED TO SET UP ARTICLES AT THE CASE WITHOUT PREVIOUSLY PUTTING THEM IN THE FORM OF MANUSCRIPT. I WAS LOST IN ADMIRATION FOR SUCH MARVELOUS INTELLECTUAL CAPACITY. . . .
And in March 1875, three months after he bought the machine, Twain was still willing to write a testimonial for the Remington catalogue that, all things considered, can probably be interpreted as an endorsement.
Please do not use my name in any way. Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the Type-Writer, for the reason that I never could write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc, etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so don’t want people to know that I own this curiosity breeding little joker.
Saml L. Clemens15
A more significant customer than Mark Twain was the New York firm of Dun, Barlow and Co. (the predecessor of Dun and Bradstreet, Inc.). This company bought typewriters for its home office, and then added forty more for its branch offices. The machines were sent out complete with carbon paper, tissue paper, and detailed instructions for typing reports and returning them to the central file in the home office. According to Current, “previously subscribers to the credit-rating services of the company had had to go to one of the offices and consult the handwritten ledger there. Now they could obtain by mail the data they required.”16 Dun, Barlow and Co. were slightly ahead of the times. Although typewriters were sold in the 1870s, they were not as popular as their producers had hoped. One reason for this is that in the 1870s typewriters still contained kinks that made them rather difficult and slow to operate. To many firms the new machine probably seemed more of an expense than an asset. Furthermore, there was some resistance to typewriting on the grounds of etiquette, as evidenced by the reply to a typed note that a Texas insurance man received from an agent: “I do not think it necessary then, nor will it be in the future, to have your letters to me taken to the printers’ and set up like a handbill. I will be able to read your writing, and I am deeply chagrined to think you thought such a course necessary.”17
But as the 1880s progressed, the typewriter became a more firmly established piece of office equipment. As the Penman’s Art Journal observed in 1887, “Five years ago the typewriter was simply a mechanical curiosity. Today its monotonous click can be heard in almost every well regulated business establishment in the country. A great revolution is taking place, and the type writer is at the bottom of it.”18 Demand for the typewriter expanded so rapidly that supply could not keep up with it. In 1886 all typewriter factories combined were producing 15,000 machines a year. Two years later production had expanded to the point where Remington alone was manufacturing more than 1,500 a month, and the demand was still so great that foreign sales were temporarily ignored in favor of the domestic market. Once it caught on, the typewriter rapidly became a permanent office fixture.
It is clear that in the development of the typewriter, changes in the organization of capitalism gave rise to technological innovation, rather than the reverse. Inventors had been experimenting with writing machines for over 150 years before the Remington company started mass production of the Sholes typewriter. It was only in the 1870s, with the first indications of the expansion of offices and the growth of office work, that any capitalist firm was willing to invest in the manufacture of writing machines. It was not until the 1880s, when offices grew by leaps and bounds, that the typewriter began to sell. Rather than causing change, the typewriter followed in the wake of basic alterations in capitalism. Nonetheless, the typewriter did facilitate certain changes in office work. It aided in meeting the vastly increased demand in correspondence and record keeping, and in processing paper more quickly, for it was faster than handwriting. In addition, as will be discussed in the next chapter, it facilitated the employment of women as clerical workers, although again changes in the organization of capitalism were basically responsible for bringing them into offices.
Finally, the typewriter aided in the development of more rigid hierarchical structures within the office and in the diminution of what upward mobility existed in clerical work. Since the typewriter was most efficiently operated by a trained typist, the establishment of the job category “typist” followed almost immediately upon the typewriter itself. Those who started out as typists often remained typists for years. To be sure, this lack of upward mobility was a fate shared by some antebellum clerks and copyists. But the fact that the ability to type was a physical skill lent credence to the claim that a skilled typist was best suited only to the operation of the machine, and was not as useful for other kinds of office work. However, the typewriter at most only facilitated the development of hierarchical structures within the office; the root of that development lay in the reorganization of the office.
The Growth of Hierarchy
As firms grew, it was no longer possible for the capitalist or his top managers to personally oversee daily business operations. They had to delegate tasks to lesser managers. The larger a firm became, the greater the number of middle- or low-level managers, and the more complex the structure of authority. It did not do to have this authority meted out in a haphazard manner. Rather, the well-designed bureaucratic hierarchy needed clear delineations of power and responsibility. At the bottom of this pyramid, of course, was the clerical worker.19 The increasing division of labor itself reinforced the usefulness and necessity of hierarchical structures. A clerical worker who executed and understood only a small section of a firm’s operations would not have the knowledge necessary to make a decision about problems that were not in his or her immediate purview. Broader understanding resided either with the clerical worker’s immediate superior or with someone further up the hierarchical pyramid.
The case history of one advertising firm illustrates this interrelated process of the division of labor and of hierarchical structures of authority. It is not surprising that one of the few business case histories focusing on office operations is that of an advertising agency, for paperwork was the very product of an ad agency and the office the locus of production.
The Ayer Advertising Agency, N. W. Ayer and Son, was founded in Philadelphia in 1869.20 F. W. Ayer founded it essentially as a one-man operation. (His father, who was a partner in the business and after whom the agency was named, was too sick to contribute much of anything.) By 1876 there were thirteen employees working in three main divisions. The Business Department solicited advertisements from various firms; the Forwarding Department placed advertisements in newspapers; and the Registry Department did the bookkeeping, made certain that advertisements had indeed been published as promised, and paid the bills. Four years later Ayer’s increased its staff to forty-three and initiated “what was evidently the first attempt to make a systematic arrangement of the agency’s work, extending the principle of functional division which had already been instituted.” New departments were created. The Bookkeeping Department kept the accounts; the Annual Department published the American Newspaper Annual, a sourcebook about newspapers; the Business Advertising Department promoted Ayer’s itself; and a separate division was established to handle the business for religious weeklies. Finally, the Merchandise Department handled the anachronistic practice of remuneration in kind: some publishers were paid with materials such as ink and type, and Ayer’s accepted some payments in the form of books, patent medicines, and other material from customers. There were eight departments for forty-three employees, or about five employees per department, which seems an excessive subdivision. It suggests that the owners anticipated relatively rapid growth.
They were not to be disappointed, for by 1900 Ayer’s boasted a staff of 163. Possibly its owners and managers were prompted to reorganize by the example of larger firms that were instituting similar subdivisions: the idea that a properly run business should be divided into functionally defined departments was no doubt beginning to take hold by this time.21 Although Ayer’s hagiographer does not assess the effect of the 1880 reorganization on specific categories of clerical workers, it seems likely that clerks were deprived of the opportunity to learn about more than a relatively narrow aspect of the agency’s operations. A clerk in the Bookkeeping Department might know how to keep accounts, but next to nothing about how the Advertising Department went about soliciting business. Conversely, a clerk in Advertising might be capable of drafting attractive copy but know nothing about collecting overdue bills.
The division of labor at Ayer’s did not stop with the creation of departments. Jobs were also divided up within departments. The Copy Department provides a clear example of this. It was originally a part of the Business Department, and its personnel, who procured customers for Ayer’s, also helped write advertising copy. After 1892, however, the firm began to hire men who concentrated exclusively on writing ads: those who were adept at drumming up business were often mediocre at writing copy, and vice versa. In 1900 the Copy Department was split off from the Business Department and became a department in its own right. Up to that point an individual copyman had been a jack-of-all-trades who wrote text, prepared ideas for illustrations, set up layouts, selected typefaces, and so forth. But in 1898 Ayer’s hired a commercial artist to prepare layouts and finished drawings; four years later it added a specialist to buy engravings and finished artwork; in 1904 an illustrator was hired; and in 1910 an art director was brought on. By 1912 “the division of work in the preparation of copy was recognized in a formal way by organizing within the Copy Department an Editorial Bureau to write advertisements, an Art Bureau to take charge of all the art work, an Engraving Bureau to buy plates and other means of mechanical reproduction, and a Stenographic Bureau to handle the typing and correspondence of the Department.”22
This further subdivision was not without its headaches. It “caused the same sort of difficulty that the multiplication of departments had previously caused the Ayer organization as a whole: between bureaus there were misunderstandings, delays, and confusion. To coordinate the work of the specialists a Production Bureau was created in 1916, followed by a Detail Bureau in 1917.”23 Hower notes this change with approval and goes on to remark that “creative workers were relieved of petty details and routine work, enabling them to work more effectively at their primary tasks. And, since the routine work could be done by comparatively unskilled employees, the ultimate result was better copy at lower cost.”24 The Ayer management may have undertaken department reorganization and a division of labor ostensibly for reasons of “rationality” and “efficiency,” but the fact that such changes also lowered labor costs was not ignored.
The increasing division of labor at Ayer’s developed concurrently with the growth of formal hierarchical structures. F. W. Ayer himself at first rejected the advice of his own managers, who had pressed for such innovations. His reluctance was not at all unusual. Many nineteenth-century capitalists who had built their firms from the ground up had a tendency to rely on older, more personal systems of management that younger executives found outmoded. In 1896 a group of Ayer’s higher-level employees recommended that an executive be hired to coordinate and supervise the agency’s work, a step that would clearly separate the “managerial function” from the day-to-day production of the agency. Ayer objected, arguing that the firm’s past experience proved him right:
Mr. Wallace undertook to be an executive head as to the management of an order. He did this with great skill and ability, but the result was that everybody else became his assistant, and no one developed. This method besides broke Mr. Wallace down, and there was no one to take his place. . . . The way to handle our business is to cultivate responsibility and accountability in individuals. . . . The great essential is that each [employee] should be faithful, dependable, and capable. . . . The executive man proposed would be sick sometimes, absent at others on vacation, etc. . . . Perhaps the firm could have done more business and made more money with an executive man, but the others would all be pawns.25
Ayer neglected to point out that he himself functioned as the firm’s general manager. He understood all of the firm’s operations and made it his business to know what was going on in all departments and to intervene as he saw fit.
By 1905, however, Ayer recognized that his one-man supervision no longer sufficed, and established five committees of three men each to oversee various aspects of the firm. This system of management held for a few years, but came in for criticism because the final authority for making decisions was not clearly delegated. And in 1911 and 1912 Ayer’s was totally reorganized. The committees were discarded and a general manager was placed in charge of the entire staff. The general manager had the final authority for deciding major issues and formulating policy; he referred lesser decisions to his assistants; and so on down the line. This system had one great advantage: the power to make various decisions was now assigned to various levels of the hierarchy. Ideally there would no longer be confusion about who had the right to decide what. In 1912, in explaining this reorganization to his staff, Ayer showed that he had forsaken his earlier principles of the development and growth of each individual and adopted a new set of principles that stressed efficiency:
Our business has suffered from its beginning from a fact for which none of you are accountable. The lack lay in me and in my failure to recognize it and remedy it early in the business history. I never had a day’s business training in my life. My father never did. I went out of the school room into this business. . . . I lacked efficiency in the things which I undertook to do. I had to feel out and find a way for everything that I did. It was a great relief to me when I got a young man who could keep the books which I had been keeping evenings. I never experienced a greater sense of relief than I did when the exactness of those entries no longer depended on me, and so one after another of those departments of the work which involved detail have been let go of, but not in a well defined way, and the persons who took hold of them at times were no better fitted for them than I was or had not had the training any more than I had. And so our business came to be a collection of methods devised by ourselves the day it came up to be done. Now that isn’t the best way to get the best methods or to get the most speed, or the most economical administration. Our business has, I think, always suffered, from that cause, and as a result of this laxity way back at the beginning.26
In his discussion, Hower does not mention the effect of the development of hierarchical structures at Ayer’s on the firm’s lower-level clerical employees. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that a system that carefully designated the powers and range of responsibilities of the higher-level employees would do the same for the clerical workers. In a situation where the lines of authority were defined poorly, if at all, it no doubt would be more possible for a clerical worker to decide for him or herself about matters that came up. In fact, Ayer’s 1896 remarks indicate that independence was encouraged. But as lines of authority hardened and duties were more precisely spelled out, such initiatives on the part of clerical workers were likely to be discouraged. Ayer’s management prided itself on its generous paternalism. This included such schemes as “premium time . . . to encourage punctuality, service bonuses . . . to foster loyalty, the savings funds and the Employees’ Trust . . . to encourage thrift and attention to the work at hand.”27 But when it came to getting every last minute out of an employee’s workday, the velvet glove came off to display the iron fist.
When Ayer’s was just getting started in the 1870s, the work week was Monday through Saturday, from 8 A.M. to 6 P.M., with an hour off for lunch. By 1885 the firm made allowances for the heat of the Philadelphia summer and released its employees at 5 P.M., and at 4 P.M. on Saturdays. This demanding work schedule created problems and by 1886 management expressed concern over tardiness:
[The firm] had attempted for a time to encourage punctuality by special citations of the employees who had not been late during each month. The bestowal of praise was apparently not effective, and the firm now gave notice that time lost through unexcused lateness would be taken from holiday periods or its equivalent deducted from the weekly wages. This feature is especially interesting in view of the fact that the employees were not paid for the overtime which they often had to work. To take the sting out of this rule a scheme of rewards for punctuality was announced: every employee would be granted one half-holiday each month, provided that he had had not more than ten unexcused latenesses during the preceding month.28
This carrot-and-stick policy still was not completely successful. Management continued to complain that workers fudged time-slips and produced questionable excuses for lateness.
The work hours at Ayer’s were not substantially reduced. In 1892 employees voted to take only a half-hour lunch on Friday and Saturday, so that they might leave an hour earlier on Saturday throughout the year. In 1899, however, Ayer’s got the contract for the National Biscuit Company (Uneeda Biscuit), and management decided the added business meant that they could no longer afford to shorten the Saturday workday in the summer. They announced this decision in the following notice:
To Our Employees:
re EARLY CLOSING.
We have approached this question this year with great misgiving, for the reason that we have been unable to see how the work now in hand can be promptly done in reduced hours. It must be apparent to every one that we are now unusually loaded for this time of year. The nature of the work is also somewhat peculiar, that is to say, with it we are being placed on trial by new clients whose dispositon to give us further business will be affected by the expedition and ability with which we handle the business we now have in hand.
The business feeds us all. To shorten our working hours, therefore, at the expense of slighting or delaying our work would be to injure every one of us—employees and employers alike. (Speaking of injury, let us also be careful that no one is hurt in the halls and stairways in rushes such as have recently followed the closing gong.)
In view of present conditions, we have thought the following the best arrangement for this season—to close at four o’clock Saturdays and five o’clock other days, but to shorten the lunch period to one-half hour every day. This schedule to go in effect Saturday, July 1st, and terminate Saturday, September 2nd, 1899.
It must also be kept in mind that vacations are to be taken during this same period. We, therefore, ask every employee to see not only that his or her own work not fall behind, but also to be watchful and helpful in all the work of the department, working after five o’clok or at other hours whenever the welfare of the business demands it.
June 30, 189929
Shortly thereafter Ayer’s management began to relent, if somewhat grudgingly. In 1902 the work week was shortened from fifty-four to fifty-one hours, and the year-round closing time was advanced from 6 to 5:30 P.M. Nonetheless, when announcing this policy, management made it clear that it wanted no liberties taken.
Our idea in doing this (which, on the present pay-roll basis, would cost us over $5,000 per year) is to enable you to get out on the street before the six o’clock trolley rush, and also enable this to be done without a crowd about the elevators. We would make the lunch period one hour every day instead of four days as heretofore. This will allow ample time to get up and down the elevators at noon without confusion.
We are quite willing to try this new order of things on one condition, namely, that you will work until 5:30 o’clock, taking after that hour whatever time you may wish to wash up, put on hats and wraps, and leave the building in an orderly manner.30
Over the next thirty years the hours were gradually reduced until, in 1932, they were shortened to thirty-five hours a week and the office was completely closed on Saturdays.
One feature stands out in this account of the organization of working hours at Ayer’s: management was primarily interested in “the welfare of the business,” despite occasional references to the well-being of its employees (“The business feeds us all,” and so on). Ayer’s may have liked to see itself in the complimentary light of benevolent paternalism, but, in the final analysis, it was mainly interested in extracting maximal effort from its workers. The managers who wrote the notices to employees were a far cry from the 1850s lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby,” who was so ambivalent about his position as an employer that he let the clerk Bartleby literally drive him from his office. By the late nineteenth century, the rhetoric of paternalism was still in the air in the larger offices, but relations between employer and employee had ceased to be very personal. Instead, they had become regulated and relatively impersonal: Melville’s “Turkey,” who returned from lunch too drunk to do any useful work, would hardly be tolerated in an office where clerical workers were expressly instructed not to don their hats and coats on company time. The personal harshness or benevolence of an individual employer was being replaced by rules that were less subject to daily interpretation or modification, even though they had originally been laid down by individual owners and managers.
The Ayer management was fond of citing opportunities for advancement within the firm as reason why employees should consider the welfare of the business identical with their own. Hower, who served as a sort of court biographer to Ayer’s, spoke approvingly of such opportunities: “Men have risen from errand-boy jobs to department headship, and, since incorporation, to presidency. The firm has always promoted from within rather than hired executives from outside, and for over twenty-five years there has been no significant departure from this policy.”31 This rosy picture of promotions within Ayer’s was at least partially true in the company’s early years, when there were relatively few employees. “Judging by their weekly wages,” Hower argues, “we must conclude that most of the [employees] hired in the ‘seventies began as clerks or office boys and learned the business from the bottom rung of the ladder.”32 This is borne out by a letter that F. W. Ayer wrote to his uncle in 1873:
July 28, 1873
Dear Uncle Geo.
I expect to make some changes in our office help this fall and wish to find a fairly educated boy of about 16 to 18 smart as a steel trap and thoroughly reliable. He must come determined to learn our business and grow up with us and if he comes in that way we can give him in my opinion as fine a chance as could be desired. He must be willing to work early and late and for one interest. Don’t want any boy who has to have everything told him but one who sees what needs to be done and does it. How would Aunt Laura’s Charlie suit me? Would she wish him to leave home, would he do as I told him and could I depend upon his staying right along at a fair price?33
But there is good reason to believe that as the firm grew in the 1880s and 1890s and thereafter, the chance of a low-level clerical worker eventually rising to a partnership became extremely remote. First of all, the firm soon began to hire those who were already trained for specific jobs. Thus, Ayer’s hired an experienced bookkeeper in 1877; a man with twenty years general experience in business in 1883; a stenographer in 1886; and a commercial artist in 1898.34 While some of these employees might be promoted, the promotions would probably not go beyond the headship of a particular bureau or department. Hower tacitly admits that the practice of promoting out of the ranks all the way to the top was on its way out, and consciously discouraged by the Ayer’s management, in the 1930s:
As the Ayer firm has grown, one problem of promotion has emerged which presents special interest and difficulty. The Ayer management, following general business practice, has tended to promote to general executive positions men who distinguished themselves as field representatives, copywriters, plans men or other specialists of the agency business. Sometimes, as a result, men who were essentially expert advertising technicians were placed in positions requiring a high degree of talent for general business administration. Occasionally one of them was able to adapt himself to the new situation, but in many instances the firm deprived itself of a good technician without gaining a capable administrator. In recent years the Ayer firm has begun to appreciate the distinction between advertising expert and a general business executive, and has endeavored to obtain more of the latter type. This development is, of course, in harmony with the general tendency of business to exercise more discernment in assigning employees to specific jobs.35
Furthermore, it was one thing for an “expert advertising technician” to be promoted to a general executive position and quite another for a clerical worker to be given such a promotion. The trend at Ayer’s toward hiring specialized workers to fill specific posts, with slim chance of indefinite promotion, was clearly more apparent among lower-level clerical workers. Although it is not certain that all of the latter were women, a sizable and growing proportion of them probably were. Hower has this to say about the status of women at Ayer’s:
The positions held by women in N. W. Ayer and Son have been almost exclusively clerical or stenographic. It is worthy of note, however, that in every division of the agency, with the exception of the Printing Department, women have been advanced to positions involving considerable responsibility and judgment. For many years one woman has been cashier of the firm, and recently another was made secretary of the corporation.36
Neither of the specific jobs that Hower mentions could truly be called executive positions. Two positions of relative authority do not amount to much when one considers that Ayer’s employed forty women in 1890, out of a total of 109 employees; 108 in 1915, out of 264; and 417 in 1932, out of 906. It may be assumed that most of these women worked as typists, stenographers, and other low-level clerical workers, and that it was rare for any of them to get a substantial promotion.
Possibly there was a certain amount of upward mobility among clerical workers in Ayer’s early years, although it is significant that the single example of potential upward mobility Hower offers is one in which the office boy for whom a bright future is held out turns out to be a relative of the firm’s owners. It seems clear that as Ayer’s expanded, the chances for a clerical worker to rise within the firm became increasingly slim, and the talk of “opportunities for advancement” applied largely to men who started off in relatively advanced positions. Expansion at Ayer’s produced a host of new “middle-management” jobs, as well as many more clerical positions. But judging from Hower’s account, the more rewarding jobs within the hierarchy—such as copy-writing, accounting, or supervisory positions—went to men. Women were restricted to the clerical work at the bottom of the hierarchy.
This short history of the Ayer advertising agency illustrates several developments that began to show up in offices after the Civil War. First of all, an extension of the division of labor resulted not only in the reorganization of firms into functionally defined departments, but also in the division of clerical work within those departments. Both this extension of the division of labor and the sheer growth in size of offices encouraged the development of hierarchical structures of authority. No longer did individual owners and managers personally oversee and make decisions about all aspects of office work. Instead, the authority to make decisions was delegated through a hierarchical structure, and policies that had heretofore been left to the discretion of an individual were codified. This state of affairs was reinforced by the fact that the division of labor had already deprived clerical workers of the information and understanding of the office’s operations that would have enabled them to make decisions on their own. The paternalism of the pre–Civil War office, be it strict or generous, was on the wane. Finally, opportunities for a clerical worker to advance to ownership or management positions were greatly diminished.