7 Things You Didn’t Know About the History of the Workplace

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the History of the Workplace


Allow me to spot a trend: nonfiction books that center on a specific, seemingly humdrum fixture of daily life and, by plumbing the scientific/historical/philosophical implications of said fixture, give it new meaning. Mark Kurlanksy’s Salt, Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork, Ken Jennings’  Maphead, John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense and Cat Sense: These books, and the many others like them, seek to widen our perspective—paradoxically—by narrowing our focus to the minute, the dull, and the familiar.

And, boy, there is nothing duller or more familiar than work. The jacket description of Cubed, n+1editor Nikil Saval’s new book about history of the workplace (specifically, the white-collar office), says it best: “You mean this place we go to five days a week has a history?” Indeed, it does: Spanning the early 1800s to the present day, and touching on subjects as far-ranging as office attire to the architecture of skyscrapers, Saval offers what may be the most comprehensive look yet at the who-what-where-when-how of work. In doing so, he hopes to “[chronicle] the history of individuals who sought to shape the office, whether physically or socially—often with the aim of bettering the lives of individuals within it and usually achieving something far from what they intended.”

Here, we take a look at seven of the most intriguing insights about the history of the workplace that Saval, in this fascinating book, brings to light.

What we talk about when we talk about the “office”

One of the themes running throughout Saval’s book is that of language—the idea that the words we use to talk about work play a part in shaping our experience of it. Oddly enough, the word “office” itself is an example of the how workers’ growing dissatisfaction with CubicleLand manifested itself in a kind of semantic drift. The word “comes from the Latin for ‘duty,’” Saval tells us, with an example being Cicero’s De officiis (“Of Office”): “For Cicero, ‘office’ was what was proper to you, what fitted you as your natural duty. This… seems far from any understanding off the office as workplace: Few people have ever considered office work to be natural, proper, or fitting.”

The first paper-pushers

The original office workers, Saval argues, were “clerks”: young men in Britain and America who, in the midst of industrialization, found employment “managing accounts, bills, ledgers: in short, paperwork.” As clerkship became a bona fide profession, the need to house their (numbingly tedious) work grew, and “one finds the evolution of the office coinciding… with a change” in their position. “By the middle of the nineteenth century… [clerks’] workplaces began to appear with a new regularity in the literature and journalism”—the most famous example being, of course, Melville’s Bartleby.

The precursor to Zumba

One of the primary downsides of office life is that it wreaks havoc—gradually and almost imperceptibly—on the body. Look at any health website or magazine, and you’ll see a smattering of articles about posture, standing desks, work treadmills, and other ergonomic solutions to the perils of sedentary work. It turns out the problem is as old as the office. Saval tells of one clerk, Edward Tailer, who, in the mid-1800s, emerged as an early champion of after-work gym time: “Highly self-conscious of the stereotypes of spindling weakness associated with members of his profession, Tailer became an exhausting propagandist for regular exercise and wrote several newspaper articles praising the gym he went to.” One of Tailer’s articles reads: “Narrow and contracted chests are soon turned into broad and expansive ones, and the puny limbs of him who is not accustomed to exercise are soon changed into… finely formed ones.” If only all Men’s Health articles were written with such verve.

Prisons of productivity

The consensus on today’s workplace culture is that we’re too busy, too stressed, and too overburdened. We also tend to think our level of busyness—attributed to new technologies, changes in industries, and eroding work/life boundaries—is uniquely contemporary. Saval shows that this is not true. In fact, office life in the early decades of the 20th century was far busier. A typical bookkeeper in the year 1920 could expect these conditions, according to Saval: “Men with stopwatches record the motions of his pencil, his filing habits, when and whether he goes to the bathroom, how long he lingers at the watercooler, how many minutes he wastes…. He clocks in and out; shrill bells ring in his workday and push him out.” Suddenly, casual Fridays seem like a blessing.

Sexual harassment: the oldest occupational hazard

Women began entering the American workforce in the 1860s “when a sizable chunk of the literate male labor force had exchanged crisp white collars for bloodstained blue Union uniforms.” They never left: “By 1926, 88 percent of secretarial positions were held by women” and females made up “nearly 100 percent of typists, stenographers, file clerks, and switchboard operators.” It should come as no surprise that the problem of sexual harassment formed early. Even less surprising: blame usually fell to women. Saval highlights one pastor who compared certifications for typist work to “licenses to a life of lewdness.” Manuals suggested female workers respond to come-ons with “patient silence or cheerful unawareness.” And objections to harassment typically resulted in termination. Saval writes: “A survey of twelve thousand fired secretaries from 1937 indicated that at least two-thirds of them were let go because of their or their bosses’ ‘personality and character defects,’” including “an unwillingness [on the part of the secretary] to go night-clubbing with the boss.”

The skyscraper: a target from the start

Almost as soon as skyscrapers began going up in America in the mid-to-late 19th century, they became targets for aggression—specifically in the form of explosives—against the capitalist order they putatively symbolized. Saval tells of one writer, Lucy Parsons, who, in the pages of the Chicago-based anarchist journal Alarm, criticized skyscrapers as evidence of oppression; in a different article, she encouraged her readers, “Learn the use of explosives!” The threat of “bombs planted in a skyscraper” became a reality in 1885, when someone “planted an explosive device in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad offices in the heart of the Loop.” Fortunately, the bomb was defused before it could detonate. But the incident was followed soon after by the Haymarket Square bombing of 1886, in which an explosive, set off at a gathering of labor activists, killed seven policemen.

A cubicle is born

What we refer to today as the cubicle—that beige, flimsy three-walled box that the novelist Douglas Coupland called a “veal-fattening pen”—began as well-intentioned alternative to the “inhuman row upon rigid row of steel desks” (in the words of a New York Post article Saval quotes) that defined early- and mid-20th-century workspaces. Originally called the “Action Office,” it was devised in the 1960s by designer Robert Propst, who was working with the furniture company Herman Miller. The Action Office, Saval notes, was about movement: “In keeping with the ergonomic thinking that Propst had been doing for years, the motion of the body assisted—corresponded to—the ceaselessly inventive motion of the white-collar mind.” As we well know, the Action Office/cubicle grew to symbolize just the opposite: regimentation, sedentary work, and malaise. In a 1998 interview withMetropolis magazine, Propst commented on the sad fate of his invention: “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive…. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes.”

Don’t we know it.



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