Ch. 1, Inventing the Pretty Typewriter

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Ch. 1, Inventing the Pretty Typewriter
Virginia Woolf was fascinated by the gap between the real and the fictional, the world and the word. They were distinct, yet never wholly dissevered. “Fiction is like a spider’s web,” she wrote, “attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners . . . attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.”1 If we are to probe the fictional webs that came to be spun around the modern secretary, the hundreds of novels and films in which she is the heroine, we must attend to that world of “grossly material things” in which those stories took shape and made sense.

One “grossly material thing” that connected millions of typists, secretaries, and stenographers was plainly the typewriter. Traditional histories credit its invention to a single man, Christopher Latham Sholes (1819-1890) (fig. 1), at one time the editor of a small-town newspaper in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and a sometime dabbler in politics. In his editorials he took positions that were idealistic, downright impractical, or forthrightly progressive: he urged abolition of the death penalty, demanded the elimination of war, and staunchly supported equal rights for women. In 1848 he was elected a state senator, then served a brief term as city clerk of Kenosha, and in 1851 returned to the state legislature as an assemblyman. In January, 1853, he met James Densmore (1820-1889) (fig. 2), then the editor of the True Democrat (a newspaper in Oshkosh, Wisconsin), a meeting that would ultimately have a profound effect on his life. Months later the two men attempted to transform Sholes’s weekly Telegraph into the Daily Telegraph, a venture that ended in failure a year later when the price of their wire service from the Associated Press became too high. The two parted amicably: Sholes stayed on to edit his weekly, slightly renamed Tribune and Telegraph in Kenosha while Densmore moved to a nearby town and another newspaper. But it was not the end of their story.

In 1857 Sholes moved to Milwaukee, where he worked as a journalist first for the Free Democrat and later The Sentinel, both Republican newspapers. When the Civil War broke out, Sholes volunteered, at his own expense, to be the governor’s personal representative and report on the physical care of Wisconsin soldiers serving in the Union army. As a reward he was named collector of the port of Milwaukee in 1863, a sinecure that entailed only light duties and consumed little time. It enabled him to quit the newspaper business and devote himself to his growing interest in inventing machinery, a penchant he had indulged ever since his move to Milwaukee. In 1860, working with Samuel W. Soule, a draftsman and civil engineer, he had designed a machine for addressing newspapers sent to customers subscribing by mail, one that was soon successfully manufactured. He had also designed another machine for numbering documents requiring successive pagination or enumeration, such as ledgers, tickets and coupons. He patented it in 1864, together with improvements made in 1866 and 1867. It was at this point that he came across an article in the journal Scientific American of 6 July, 1867, which reported on a “Type Writing Machine” that had recently been invented. It prompted Sholes to wonder whether he might be able to devise a better one.2

Working once again with Samuel Soule and also with a lawyer named Carlos Glidden, Sholes set out to build a working model of a machine that would embody his essential insight. The writing machine described in Scientific American had characters that were arranged on a wheel that would rotate a character into place, supplemented by a hammer that then stuck the paper against it. The procedure entailed so many steps to produce a single letter that it could never be faster than normal writing. Sholes, instead, decided that he would put each type or character on a separate bar, and that each bar would individually strike the paper: a single motion for a single character. By September, 1867, he had a working model and even arranged for a demonstration. Charles E. Weller, chief operator at the local office of Western Union telegraph, was so impressed that he put in an order for the very first one to leave the shop. He would receive it only four months later: Sholes had devised the working model of a potentially useful machine; but reproducing it by manual production was slow and costly.

To remedy this problem, Sholes and his colleagues decided they needed capital and manufacturing expertise. Soule was sent to New York and Washington, lugging a bulky model with him, but failed to find a backer. Sholes, instead, recalled his former colleague and friend James Densmore; he sent him a letter, typed with the new machine, in which he described the invention and hinted at its possibilities with a quotation from Shakespeare:

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

Densmore, now living in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and working as an attorney for a machine company, was immediately interested. Weeks of negotiation by correspondence led to an agreement in November, 1867: in return for paying Sholes, Soule, and Glidden $200 each, Densmore would receive a 25% share in the venture and undertake to finance the machine’s manufacture. In the years since his collaboration with Sholes in Kenosha, Densmore had also become an inventor, having devised and patented an early version of a tank car for transporting oil on railroads. His set of skills was suited to the typewriter enterprise: former editor and publicist, inventor, and lawyer. In March, 1868, he finally arrived in Milwaukee, took command of the project, and swiftly discovered that he was part-owner of a machine much cruder than he had thought. He immediately demanded improvements.

In late June that year he journeyed to Washington, D.C., and filed claims for two patents: one covered the design of the earlier machine demonstrated back in September, 1867; the other, the improved machine developed over the last three months. Densmore now took the newer, improved machine to Chicago. In association with Soule and E. Payson Porter (who ran a telegraph school), he spent $1,000 to manufacture fifteen machines. Alas, when tested at Porter’s school, they swiftly jammed. Densmore abandoned plans for further manufacturing and instead returned to prodding Sholes and his colleagues to make more improvements.

The next stage of tinkering required more than two years, and it was only in March, 1871, that Densmore felt he could undertake a second attempt at manufacturing. This time he used a machine shop in Milwaukee owned by Charles F. Kleinsteuber (fig. 3); it included a brass foundry as well as general machine tools for model making. The newly manufactured machines worked well enough at the beginning, but after intense usage some of their characters fell out of alignment. Production was halted after making only twenty-five machines, and once more Densmore directed his team of inventors to find a solution.

By the spring of 1872, Densmore was again convinced that the machine was technically ready; he also decided that he would personally supervise a third attempt at manufacturing, this one to take place in Milwaukee but at a different location, an old mill with water power. By late June he had installed second-hand tools, chosen a superintendent, and hired several laborers. But the machines were still being handmade. Densmore inspected each one and often required alterations or the remaking of parts. Even he could see that the scale of the Milwaukee operations was inappropriate: “I am anxious to get everything in such shape that the various parts can be made by machinery, without this everlasting filing and fitting, which makes but a botch after it is done.”3 The machines were a technical success and a financial failure. “The fact is that as we are now making them they are costing more than we ask for them. And until we cheapen the making, we are losing all the time,” he complained.4 It was in November, 1872, that Densmore and Sholes decided to make one last change to the machine, altering its keyboard in a way that would make it less likely to jam by separating the most frequently used keys, resulting in the famous QWERTY configuration--so named after the first six letters in the topmost row of keys--that has become the so-called “universal” keyboard still in use today. Every time that we use or office PC or home laptop, our fingers retrace the steps that were taken to solve a problem that hasn’t existed for more than thirty years: preventing the typewriter bars from jamming as the rose toward the central point where the keys struck the page.

One month later, in December, Densmore was visited by a friend who bore the sonorous name of George Washington Newton Yost; it was Yost who suggested to him that he take the typewriter elsewhere for manufacturing. He recommended the arms makers Eliphalet Remington & Sons of Ilion, New York, and offered to accompany him there. Some two months later, in mid-February, 1873, Densmore and Yost journeyed to Ilion. A picturesque town with a small creek that flowed into the Mohawk River, the largest tributary of the Hudson, it was dominated by the massive Remington factory, so vast it would cover five acres if spread out on a single floor (fig. 4). Staying at a small hotel, Yost and Densmore were greeted by three men: Philo Remington, the eldest of the founder’s three sons and the firm’s president since their father had died in 1861; Henry Benedict, a young executive; and Jefferson Clough, the superintendent and head mechanic of the Remington works. Yost and Densmore gave the men a working demonstration of their machine. Fifty years later, Benedict recalled:

We examined and discussed the machine for perhaps an hour-and-a-half or two hours and then adjourned for lunch or dinner. As we left the room, Mr. Remington said to me, “What do you think of it?”

I replied, “That machine is very crude, but there is an idea there that will revolutionize business.”

Mr. Remington asked, “Do you think we ought to take it up?”

I said, “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.”5

One part of Benedict’s recollection may have been affected by the half-century of events that had subsequently intervened, his confident assertion that the typewriter would “revolutionize business.” If that is what he truly said to Remington, he was extraordinarily prescient. Sholes and Densmore, instead, thought it useful for telegraph operators wishing to convert Morse code into legible text, which is why the first demonstration of the machine in 1867 had included the telegraph operator who then ordered the first machine to be produced, or why Densmore’s first manufacturing attempt in Chicago had been in collaboration with a man who ran a school for training telegraph operators.6 Who would use the typewriter was still an unanswered question that lingered in the background during the two weeks of negotiation that followed. On 1 March, a contract was at last signed, with terms that greatly favored the Remingtons. Densmore would pay them $10,000 in advance, and also grant a royalty of $0.50 per machine to Jefferson Clough, the Remington head mechanic who would redesign the machine for mass manufacture. The Remingtons agreed to produce at least 1,000 units, plus a further 24,000 at their discretion, and would receive a fixed price for each machine manufactured (the exact sum is not known).7

Densmore now had to find cash to meet these new obligations. He borrowed $3,000 from Clough, enough to keep a few creditors at bay, then returned to Chicago to hustle up $10,000 from Anson Stager, a telegraph entrepreneur who, in exchange, received exclusive rights for selling typewriters in certain western states for the Western Electric Company. It was yet another financial complication--just when Densmore thought he had solved them.

In November, 1872, four months before Densmore signed the agreement with the Remingtons, he had added up his own investment in the typewriter and found that he had spent $13,000 in financing experiments, patents, and manufacturing.8 Most of it was money he had borrowed against the future royalties that would accrue to his 25% share of the project, including substantial loans advanced to him by his brothers Amos and Emmet. It was time to reach a comprehensive settlement that would not only convert these loans from liabilities into assets, albeit passive ones, but also formalize other transactions that had altered the financial relations among the four co-owners of the patent claim: Christopher Latham Sholes, Densmore himself, the draftsman Samuel Soule, and the lawyer Carlos Glidden. Soule, during the intervening years, had moved to New York and agreed to sell Densmore his 25% share for $500 (which Densmore duly purchased, though his actual payments were extended over time). Glidden, instead, had drifted away from the typewriter project, absorbed in another invention, and to finance work on it had offered Sholes his 25% share in exchange for his serving as co-signer for a note of $250. When Sholes hesitated, Densmore instructed him to go ahead and promised that he, Densmore, would pay for the note, as he later did. Densmore, in short, owned 50% of the original patents and co-owned 25% with Sholes; while Sholes owned his own 25%. Glidden, meanwhile, had returned to the typewriter project and helped Sholes in further developing it between 1870 and 1872. He was therefore justified, or so he thought, in claiming back a portion of the share he had sold. Densmore rejected this claim; he himself had paid Glidden a salary for working with Sholes, and in his view owed him nothing further. Glidden then turned to Sholes, asking that he give him a portion from his share in the business. Sholes had so little faith in the commercial viability of the typewriter that he was happy to placate Glidden with a portion from his own share.

The formalization of these arrangements was an “agreement of trust” that Densmore drew up and executed on 16 November, 1872. The various owners of all interests in patents already obtained, pending, or to be applied for, agreed to assign them to Densmore and Sholes jointly, as trustees. The trustees could make and sell instruments or license others to do so, and all proceeds would be divided as follows:

James Densmore 40%

Christopher Latham Sholes 30%

Carlos Glidden 10%

Amos Densmore 10%

Emmett Densmore 10%

But in April, 1873, less than a month after Densmore had contracted with Remington, Sholes decided to sell off one of his three remaining 10% shares; he mistrusted the typewriter’s commercial prospects, and his present needs were pressing. He disposed of it in fractions to Amos Densmore and two others for a total of $5,350, partly paid in cash. Densmore grew alarmed: outsiders buying shares from Sholes might create trouble for his ongoing management. In response he formulated a new plan: together with his brother Amos and G. W. N. Yost, he would buy out Sholes and any other shareholders. To do so he created a new firm, Densmore, Yost & Company, one that promptly repurchased all the portions Sholes had sold to outsiders, as well as Emmett Densmore’s entire tenth, and one of Shole’s two remaining tenths, the latter bought with $10,000 in promissory notes. The agreement was struck in September, 1874. Sholes was now left with only a single share, ten percent of the whole.9

Meanwhile, on 30 April, 1874, the first Remington-made machine finally arrived at the sales office that Densmore had opened in New York. It was a handsome piece, enclosed in metal painted with glossy black enamel, and distinctly resembling a sewing machine, replete with a foot treadle (such as contemporary sewing machines had) that shifted the paper from one line to the next (fig. 5). Two months later six more machines were shipped to Washington and ten to Chicago, all for use by shorthand reporters who would pay for them by writing glowing testimonials. Things were up and running—at last. Remington announced it was ready to produce as many as a hundred machines in the next month. But its estimate of production capacity bore no relationship to real demand. By the end of 1874 only 400 machines had been sold. And figures for the next four years were hardly better, averaging 900 per year. Between 1874 and 1878, four thousand typewriters were manufactured and sold.10

Tellingly, that figure broadly coincides with another figure from the U.S. census for the year 1880, one that shows only 5,000 people employed as stenographers or typists in the United States. But it also shows something else more startling: already 2,000 of them (or 40%) were female. Those figures are still more startling when compared to the corresponding figures from the census of a decade earlier in 1870, when the same occupational category had contained only 154 workers in total, of which a mere 7 were female (or 4.5%). Not only had the number of total workers increased by more than 3000% in the intervening decade, but the percentage of female workers had multiplied by tenfold.11 It signalled the beginning of a revolution. And yet it was also a revolution that a contemporary might have failed to discern. For while the census of 1880 was plainly conducted in the year 1880, the labor of compiling and collating its results was so vast that it was not completed and published until ten years later, in 1890. The delay was a sign of a broader development: private enterprise was growing so large that government efforts to monitor it were hamstrung by inadequate data retrieval and collation technologies. The typewriter would become a critical instrument for more rapid and efficient data production in large corporations; but this use was apparent to neither Sholes nor Densmore. Densmore had poured his energies in getting the typewriter manufactured; but his ability to bring it to market was hampered by his inability to imagine it being used by a commercial sector, rather than isolated individuals. The machine, early advertisements urged, was suited to lawyers, clergymen, editors, and court reporters. But those made up a tiny market when compared to the business sector that would soon adopt it. Yet already in 1875 there was a telling hint of the future. The firm of Dun, Barlow & Co. (predecessor of the celebrated business information firm, Dun & Bradstreet) purchased one hundred typewriters to equip its main office, then sent another forty to its branches throughout the United States, together with instructions that all reports now had to be typed. Previously subscribers who sought out the firm’s business evaluations had to go to its offices to consult a handwritten ledger; now typewritten reports would be routinely mailed to them.12 It was data intensive firms such as Dun Barlow that constituted the real market for the typewriter.

Densmore also didn’t foresee another problem, the question of who would operate the machine and where he or she would get the training. Yes, the typewriter was significantly faster than the pen, producing some sixty words per minute, much more than the twenty to thirty of someone writing by hand. But if an employee had to spend three months or more to learn how to use it, the price of the machine became formidable when the cost in lost productive labor was added to its already hefty price ($125).

At the end of the first year when the typewriter was manufactured by Remington, 1874, Densmore tried to address the sales problem. Together with George Washington Newton Yost and his brother Amos, he formed a new firm, the Type-Writer Company; Yost and Densmore were each credited with 1,000 shares in the firm, and Densmore’s brother Amos with 500.13 It immediately granted to Yost (and a new associate of his) both its contract with Remington for manufacturing typewriters and its agency for all sales. But sales throughout the early months of 1875 were so poor that another arrangement soon had to be found. On 1 November, 1875, the Type-Writer company set aside its original contract with Remington and entered into a new one. Remington acquired the exclusive right to make and sell the typewriters in return for a fifteen dollar fee paid on each machine. But Remington was wary of the expense required to assemble a sizeable sales force; instead it struck a deal with yet another firm headed by Yost, which became the exclusive selling agent till the end of 1878. When that arrangement expired, Remington turned to Fairbanks & Company, famous scale manufacturers who had outlets throughout the country; a four-year contract granted Fairbanks an exclusive agency for typewriter sales. But Fairbanks found itself in the same position: it had offices in many places, but not employees familiar with the new machine or cognizant of its potential clientele. In response they did what the Remingtons had done: they turned to the irrepressible G. W. N. Yost, whom they hired to direct and organize sales.14

Already back in 1876, Yost had found his best salesman in the field, a man named William O. Wyckoff (fig. 6). Wyckoff was a court reporter for a judicial district formed by ten counties in central New York, the same area assigned him as his sales territory. When he encountered resistance to buying typewriters on the grounds that nobody was qualified to operate them, he opened his own typewriting school and soon offered a skilled operator to accompany each machine that he sold. During 1876, when the total sales of typewriters across the United States numbered 900, Wyckoff alone sold 157 machines. His pupils, it was claimed, could produce seventy words per minute (wpm).15

While Wyckoff’s student pool was composed of both men and women, that was not the case for students atf another institution that soon took up the typewriter. In 1881 the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in New York City offered its first class in typewriting. Eight pupils were permitted to attend. All were promptly hired to work in business offices where the only previous female employees had been scrubbing women who cleaned up at night.16 We know little about the content or structure of these early lessons in typing, but they must have differed substantially from later practice, for it was only in 1882 that the first book appeared which advocated typing with all ten fingers, or “touch” typing as it came to be known.17 How much these pedagogical developments improved the actual performance of typists cannot be precisely quantified, but it was probably considerable.

Until now, the Remingtons had enjoyed a virtual monopoly. But after working only a year for Fairbanks & Co., the selling agents, Yost left to pursue his own ambitions: to create a rival brand of typewriter that would compete with Remington. To do this, however, he had to persuade Densmore and the Type-Writer Company to let him use their patents, despite the exclusive contract with Remington. A lawyer working with Yost convinced Densmore that he could do so with impunity: the Type-writer Company had issued bonds to secure its many debts, and in his role as trustee for the bondholders Densmore could violate the Remington contract as long as any fees that came to him were strictly applied to retiring the bonds. On 12 January, 1880, Densmore and Yost signed an agreement to just that effect. Whether a typewriter was sold by Remington or Yost, it would always mean profit for Densmore, or at least a reduction in the mountain of debts he had accumulated. Events did not turn out as he hoped. When Remington learned about his deal, it was furious. It cut off all payments due him from ongoing typewriter sales. It further demanded that he turn over to Remington any new patents that he had obtained since 1873 (two had been applied for in 1878), as well as rights to a new portable typewriter that Sholes was working on. Densmore resisted manfully. But after more than a year he was starved into submission. Remington set out to castrate him. It took over all the functions of the Type-Writer Company from him. Henceforth, Remington itself would directly pay all royalties due to third parties; of any remaining sum, one half would then go to pay off the $59,000 in debts to Remington that Densmore ($9,000) and Yost ($50,000) had built up. Densmore, henceforth, would receive only $3.00 per typewriter.18

The question of the other shareholders in the Type-Writer Company had also been simplified the previous year, in 1880. Sholes had long wanted to sell his last remaining share of 10%. He heartily disliked the machine that Remington had made from his invention. “It simply don’t pay, can’t pay,” he wrote to Densmore already in 1876. “It is too large, too cumbrous, too complicated, too expensive, too troublesome for what it achieves. . . . What I wanted from the first was to get out entirely.”19 He disliked it so much that he even refused to use it, preferring to write with a lead pencil. In the summer of 1878 he reiterated his account of why typewriter sales were so poor: “The trouble is just where I have always placed it--to wit: that the machine, taking everything into account, is not a labor-saving machine. The public doesn’t need it--doesn’t want it. It doesn’t sell itself.”20 In 1880 he was finally granted his wish to sever all financial connections to the Remington typewriter. Densmore agreed to pay him the amount still due him on the old promissory notes that had been signed when Sholes had last sold a 10% stake in the firm, and for the last remaining share he paid him $3,000 in cash, as well as another $2,800 for Sholes’s entire interest in a portable typewriter he was working on. Sholes, in his own words, was “glad to get out entirely.”21 After 1880, he had no financial connection to the typewriter; and after 1881, Densmore was reduced to a mere recipient of royalties, without no further role in its development.

Knowing that Yost’s new rival machine, the Caligraph, would be coming onto the market in mid-1881, Remington took another step. It discontinued its selling agreement with Fairbanks & Company and instead turned to the man who’d directed Fairbanks’s sales division ever since Yost’s departure, Clarence W. Seamans (fig. 7). Seamans, in turn, recruited William O. Wyckoff, the salesman who had started his own classes in typing back in 1876, and together the two approached Henry Benedict (fig. 8), the young executive who had first urged the Remingtons to take on the typewriter in 1873. The three formed a partnership (Wyckoff, Seamans, and Benedict) and on 1 August, 1882, contracted with Remington to be the exclusive sales agents for the typewriter. They would take all the typewriters the firm could produce. Their impact on sales was immediate:

1880 610

1881 1,170

1882 2,272

1883 3,376

1884 4,000


Total 11,42822

Despite the rising sales figures, the firm of E. Remington & Sons was increasingly in trouble, as it had been ever since the late 1870s. In the wake of the American Civil War, Remington had adopted a dual strategy for growth, expanding firearms sales to foreign governments while diversifying into non-military and consumer products, especially agricultural equipment and sewing machines. The decision to manufacture typewriters had formed part of this plan. But over the next decade (1875-1885) things had slowly gone awry. The Egyptian and Mexican governments had defaulted on large orders of firearms that could never be retrieved; the agricultural equipment division was being hammered by competition from manufacturers in the midwest; and Remington sewing machines did poorly against competition from the established Singer brand. By early 1886, Remington was in crisis.

It was now that Wyckoff, Seamans, and Benedict made an audacious move. In March that year they purchased the entire typewriter business from Remington. How they raised the capital for this is not known, but they paid the very substantial sum of $197,000 for the whole business, which included plant, valued at $50,000; stock and material, valued at $25,000; and franchise and patents, valued at $100,000. That left them with $50,000 in cash with which to continue manufacturing. The three men now created the Remington Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company with an authorized capital of $225,000. (It had also been agreed that they could continue to use the Remington name on their typewriters.) Even this massive cash injection was not enough to stave off disaster for Remington & Sons. The next month, on 22 April, 1886, the firm was placed in the hands of receivers who took two years to liquidate it.23

Other firms were now gearing up to compete. In addition to Yost’s Caligraph, new models being made by three other firms by 1885. Wyckoff, Seamans, and Benedict responded by cutting the price: in 1883 they cut from $125 to $100, and in 1885 to $95.24 They also reorganized and rationalized their manufacturing; by 1888, only two years after buying out the Remingtons, they were producing 1,500 typewriters a month, or 18,000 per year. Compare that with the 11,000 produced and sold between 1880 and 1884.25 (Their achievement is even more impressive if one recalls that each machine had more than 2,000 parts.) Their business was booming for reasons identified by an anonymous contemporary writing in the Penman’s Art Journal: “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.”26 Wyckoff, Seamans, and Benedict also expanded exporting sales: they opened offices in Berlin in 1883, Paris in 1884, and London in 1886.27 They aimed at global dominance.

The typewriter’s explosive growth in production and sales occurred in tandem with an impressive expansion of office culture. In 1880, recall, there were 5,000 stenographers and typists according to the U. S. census, of whom 40% were women. A decade later the figure had increased more than sixfold to 33,418, of whom 63.6% were women. The number of women stenographers/typists had jumped from 2,000 to 21,270, a more than tenfold increase. Some of this increase in typists could be explained as merely a part of a much larger growth in office workers. In 1880 bookkeepers, cashiers, and accounts had numbered 74,919; by 1890 their number had more than doubled to 159,374. Women’s share of this occupational category also expanded vertiginously: in 1880 they had constituted only 5.7% of all bookkeepers, cashiers, and accountants; by 1890, instead, their share had tripled, reaching 17.4%.28 True, the American population had also been increasing during the same decade, from 50.2 to 63 million people, a gain of 25%. But during the same decade, by one generous estimate, the total of all clerical workers had leaped from 172,600 to 801,500, a gain of 364%.29 Even a more conservative reading of the census data discerned an increase in clerical workers from 152,536 to 427,944, a gain of 280%.30 Women were joining the business workforce at an unprecedented pace. Yes, within a decade the overall population had grown by 25%; and yes, the number of clerical workers had expanded by 364% (generous) or 280% (conservative reading); but even by a conservative reading, the number of female clerical workers had jumped from 7,000 to 76,000, a gain of nearly 1100%.

Yet perhaps the most telling statistic of the many associated with the 1890 census was another detailing how long it took to count and collate these vertiginous numbers. Previously, it had taken a decade to compile and publish the data from the 1880 census; by contrast, the much larger data field for the 1890 census was processed within two years (and also cost $5 million less!). This extraordinary acceleration was brought about by a new machine called the Hollerith tabulator, a device that relied on something equally novel called the punched card, both devised by Herman Hollerith (1860-1929). The idea was simple: an electric current would attempt to pass through, but be blocked by a card, except where a hole had been punched through it; where the current then passed through, it set off a counter. (Herman Hollerith went on to found the firm that became IBM in 1921.)31 The Hollerith tabulator was only the most dramatic sign of a much wider technological revolution sweeping through office culture.

Assessing the scope of that revolution can be difficult because it entailed techniques of information management so elementary, and later so ubiquitous, that only with effort can we appreciate their novelty. Consider the loose-leaf ledger system, sometimes called a ring or post bound system, which was first marketed in 1894. It meant that an account of any size could be kept together in its proper alphabetic or numeric order; as it grew over time, new bits of information could be added ad infinitum, while bits that were no longer active or relevant could be removed and discarded. It sounds simple, and almost everyone has maintained a loose-leaf ledger or notebook at some point in life. But compare it with the bound ledger-books that all firms used prior to its invention. When an account reached the end of a book or the set of pages allocated to it, it had to be restarted again somewhere else, with laborious cross-referencing to enable someone to keep track of it. Another device was the vertical filing system, first devised in 1892 by the Library Bureau (an organization founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey to promote his decimal system and sell supplies to libraries). One year later, replete with the first file cases to hold the new system, it was unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair, where it won a gold medal.32 By about 1905 it had become a standard office practice.33 With heavy card-stock dividers and folders that could be re-labeled as needed, it offered flexibility and order in managing complex, constantly changing pools of information. The same was true for card files or index cards in standardized sizes; they could be arranged into any convenient order (alphabetical, chronological, numerical), removed for work and then reinserted in their proper place; and in more advanced systems using punched cards, they could even be sorted and collated by tabulating machines of the sort first deployed for the American census of 1890.34 These elementary yet crucial techniques of information management were increasingly complemented by an array of new machines, starting with the telephone, itself invented at the same time as the first typewriters were being produced (1876). There were mimeograph or stencil machines, “business phonographs” or Dictaphones, stenotypes, adding machines and calculators attached in turn to billing and address machines.35 The office, with its ranks of new information technologies and techniques, was itself becoming a gigantic machine that produced, collated, stored, and retrieved information. At its center stood the female secretary or typist, a fallible mechanism lodged within the larger machine, another device for producing, storing, retrieving data. As if to underscore this new relationship, writers between 1890 and 1920 often referred to the new writing machine and the secretary or typist with the same term, “typewriter,” merging them in a single word. Edna, the Pretty Typewriter designated a contemporary novel (see the next chapter) that recounted the doings of an attractive young woman, not the activities of a nicely decorated machine.36

In the United States, typewriters of both sorts, as well as the offices that housed them, were increasingly nestled within another new machine, an architectural machine, the commercial high-rise building or “sky-scraper” as it was called after 1890. It took shape at a confluence of technological and commercial imperatives. Consider that new material, steel, an alloy of iron with a low percentage of carbon and small amounts of other elements, an achievement made possible by discoveries of Sir Henry Bessemer in England in 1855, William Kelly in the United States in 1847 and 1857, and Siemens-Martin in Germany by 1868. That it possessed greater homogeneity, strength, and ductility than iron was well established by the 1870s when its powers were dramatically demonstrated in the carbon-steel wires used to form the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883. But variations in quality caused it to be distrusted by architects and engineers even after steel beams began to be rolled on a large scale in the 1880s.37 By 1893, instead, its use was being unequivocally urged for modern office buildings: “The frame should be of milled steel, columns, girders, beams, etc., using the usual commercial shapes. The various parts should be rivetted together and the column connections made so as to maintain the full strength of the column.”38 The frame, bolstered by wind bracing, now became a “skeleton” that supported the body of the building. Walls no longer fulfilled a support or load-bearing function; they became like curtains that were draped on the building’s exterior. As a consequence they could be much thinner and so free up space within the building’s interior, which in turn meant more rent from occupants and more profit for the owner/developer. It was necessary to add only a few more developments: the electrically operated elevator (introduced by Otis Brothers in 1889), central heating, incandescent electric lighting throughout the building, forced-draft ventilation, and automatic controls. Furnishings would also have to accommodate women, wrote the architect and engineer George Hill in 1893: “In the floor where the toilets for women are there should be placed a double number of water-closets, and, if possible, sufficient room for a sofa and a connection for a small gas stove.”39

One last, yet crucial change would take place in the design of the typewriter. In 1893 the Underwood firm, previously a manufacturer of typewriter supplies (ribbons, etc.), introduced its own typewriter designed by Franz Xavier Wagner. Unlike all the Remington and other models produced until now, it had a front-striking mechanism, which is to say that all the keys, laid out in an arc that was visible to the typist, would rise upward and forward to strike the paper, then fall back, so that a typist could instantly see the character that had just been produced. Amazingly, at least to a later observer, all the machines that had been produced till then were back-striking machines: the key would rise at the back of the machine and strike the paper from behind. Only after a typist had completed three or four lines could he or she pause to discern whether any errors had been made. All manufacturers, including Remington, were soon imitating the front-striking mechanism.

By 1893, twenty years after James Densmore had first negotiated the contract with E. Remington and Sons to manufacture the typewriter, an entire office ecology had evolved in which the machine had finally found its home, a world in which new machines and information management techniques were marshalled to execute, record, and expedite an immense quantity of transactions. At the heart of that world stood an equally novel figure: the typist, the secretary, the pretty typewriter, the female clerical worker, the office girl, the business girl, the bachelor girl. In the ensuing decades, these real-life figures were reformulated as spectacle and placed at the center of a fictional universe, becoming the principal protagonist in hundreds of novels and films, the heroine of comic strips, cartoons, and postcards, the subject matter of worried office manuals and anxious conduct books, the enigmatic muse of poetry and popular song. The result was a mythology as sprawling and complex as the metropolis that was its setting. Already in the 1890s, newspaper headlines testify to an almost obsessive fascination with the doings of this semi-real, semi-mythical figure:

Pretty Typewriters on the Limited (1890)

Eloped with His Pretty Typewriter (1891)

Did Not Kill Herself: Investigating the Death of the Pretty Typewriter (1894)

Suicide of a Pretty Typewriter (1894)

Rescue Pretty Typewriter (1899).40

“The lady typewriter,” a New Yorker wrote in 1893, “has come to stay and afford a mark for wit and humor rivalling the mother-in-law, the tramp, the amateur fisherman, and the other time-honored subjects of jokes.”41 Another noted the same phenomenon, but also a profound transformation in the very appearance of the cityscape:

One of the most striking features of the industrial life of New York to-day is the conspicuous part played in it by the female sex. Not many years ago it was rather an uncommon thing to see girls or women employed in business offices. . . . To-day women-workers are everywhere. . . With the invention of the typewriting machine a vast new field was opened to wage-earners of the gentler sex, which they were quick to occupy. On few subjects have more jokes been made, and ill-natured slurs cast, than on the “pretty typewriter.”42
It was in the early 1890s that the first novels appeared which featured a secretary as their heroine. One novel, Estelle’s Millionaire Lover; or, The Prettiest Typewriter in New York. mustered hyperbolic prose to describe Estelle’s effect on her contemporaries as she set off to work in the morning; she becomes a goddess who transfixes the gaze of fellow commuters and mesmerizes her male colleagues when she enters the office: “The clerks all looked up from their work to smile and nod at her, thankful for a glance of her beautiful eyes in return; for, without exception, they were all infatuated with her.”43 The clerks, of course, are figures who stand in for the book’s readers, contemporaries experiencing a collective infatuation with this uniquely modern heroine. They epitomize an entire culture feeling the first flush of attraction toward a figure who encodes all the allure and promise, and all the mystery of the modern world. The typewriter, a useful if somewhat noisy machine, had become the precondition for something far more arresting: the pretty typewriter.

Notes to Chapter 1

1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929), 43.

2. Richard N. Current, The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1954; second edition Arcadia, CA: Post-Era Books, 1988), 1-11; herafter cited simply as Current. See also Anonymous, “Type Writing Machine,” Scientific American, 17.1 (6 July 1867): 3. Current’s account of the typewriter’s invention and early manufacturing remains the most authoritative because it was based on the correspondence between Sholes and Densmore, then in the hands of Priscilla Densmore, who later donated it to the Carl P. Dietz collection at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Maddeningly, Current does not furnish footnotes to indicate the specific dates of letters, though he did so earlier in essays preceding his book’s publication: “The Original Typewriter Enterprise, 1867-1873,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 32, no. 4 (June 1949): 391-407; and “Technology and Promotion: The Typewriter,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 25, no. 2 (June 1951): 77-83. Also useful is George N. Engler, “The Typewriter Industry: The Impact of a Significant Technological Innovation” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1969).

3. Quoted in Current, 53, 55.

4. James Densmore to Walter J. Barron, 8 Nov. 1872, quoted in Current, 60.

5. Henry Benedict, quoted in [Alan C. Reiley], The Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923 (Herkimer, New York: Herkimer County Historical Society, 1923), 57-58.

6. In October, 1870, furthermore, Densmore showed the machine to George Harrington and D. N. Craig, officers of the newly organized Automatic Telegraph Company, without securing their financial support. On 31 October, 1869, Sholes wrote to Densmore about another visitor who had examined the current model of the typewriter: “The Colonel talks about it very much as you do, anticipating that it will become as important in the literary world, as the sewing machine is in the stitcherary world.” Densmore, in other words, anticipated that the typewriter would be of use to the literary world, or the telegraphic world; but he did not see the business world as a significant market, and it is unlikely that Henry Benedict did so already back in 1873. For Densmore’s approach to Harrington and Craig, see Current, The Typewriter, 41-43; for Sholes’s letter to Densmore, see Current, “The Original Typewriter Enterprise,” 405 n. 35.

7. On Densmore and the Remington firm, see Current, The Typewriter, 60-64.

8. Ibid., 60.

9. The financial arrangements in the last three paragraphs are taken from Current, 75-77.

10. Ibid., 73, 87.

11. For these census figures see Margery W. Davies, Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers, 1870-1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983), Appendix: Table 1, [178-179].

12. Erastus Wiman, Chances of Success: Episodes and Observations in the Life of a Busy Man (New York: American News Co., 1893; reprint Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, n.d.), 160-163.

13. Current, 79.

14. See Current, 79-90, and Donald Hoke, Ingenious Yankees: The Rise of the American System of Manufactures in the Private Sector (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, 132-149, and especially 299 n. 69.

15. On Wyckoff and his typewriting classes, see Current, 85.

16. Bliven, 71; maybe Mary S. Sims, The YWCA, an Unfolding Purpose (New York: Woman’s Press, [1950]), give page numbers.

17. Mrs. M. V. Longley, Type-writer Lessons, for the Use of Teachers and Learners, Adapted to Remington’s Perfected Type-writers (Cincinnati: privately published, 1882).

18. Current, 98-100.

19. Quoted in ibid., 90.

20. Quoted in ibid., 97.

21. Ibid., 128.

22. Ibid., 105.

23. Hoke, Ingenious Yankees, 147-148.

24. Current,108; Engler, “The Typewriter Industry,” 23.

25. Current, 110; Engler, “The Typewriter Industry,” 24-25.

26. Quoted in Current, 110.

27. [Reiley], The Story of the Typewriter, 94.

28. Census figures are from Davies, A Woman’s Place, [178].

29. William Henry Leffingwell, Office Management: Principles and Practice (Chicago & New York: A. W. Shaw, 1925), 6.

30. Davies, A Woman’s Place, [178].

31. James W. Cortada, Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, and Remington Rand and the Industry They Created, 1865-1956 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 48; Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (New York: Random House, 1973), 172-173.

32. See JoAnne Yates, Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 56-63. Earlier but still useful surveys of similar innovations are 1981 Elyce J. Rotella, "The Transformation of the American Office: Changes in Employment and Technology," Journal of Economic History 41 (1981): 51-57; and Thomas Whalen, "Office Technology and Socio-Economic Change, 1870-1955," IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 2.2 (June 1983): 12-18.

33. Whalen, “Office Technology,” 16, notes that vertical filing is taken for granted by one writer in 1907 (W. V. Booth, M. D. Wilber, et. al., eds., Accounting and Business Methods [Chicago: The System Company, 1907], 5), but treated as recent by another in 1913 (John William Schulze, The American Office: Its Organization, Management, and Records [New York: Key Publishing Co., 1913], 39).

34. Hollerith’s first commercial client was the New York Central Railroad in 1895. “Between 1900 and 1917, companies in other industries began to use his equipment, most notably insurance firms,” writes James Cortada, Before the Computer, 50. In support of this claim he cites G. W. Baehne, Practical Applications of Punched Card Method in Colleges and Universities (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), 6, and Arthur L. Norberg, “High-Technology Calculation in the Early Twentieth Century: Punched Card Machinery in Business and Government,” Technology and Culture 31, no. 4 (October 1990): 766-768. See also JoAnne Yates, “Early Interactions between the Life Insurance and Computer Industries,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 19, no. 3 (July 1997): 60-73, especially 62-63.

35. See Cortada, Before the Computer.

36. Grace Miller White, Edna, The Pretty Typewriter (New York: J. G. Ogilvie, 1907).

37. Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl W. Condit, Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 146-158 and 170-175.

38. George Hill, “Some Practical Limiting Conditions in the Design of the Modern Office Building,” Architectural Record 2 (April-June 1893): 445-468, here 466.

39. Ibid., 449.

40. Washington Post, 31 January 1890, 2; Chicago Tribune, 1 January 1891, 1; Washington Post, 21 March 1894, 1; Washington Post, 15 October1894, 1; Chicago Tribune, 5 November 1899, 4.

41. Erastus Wiman, Chances of Success: Episodes and Observations in the Life of a Busy Man (New York: American News Co., 1893; reprint Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, n.d), 163.

42. Daniel B. Shepp, Shepp’s New York City Illustrated (Chicago, Philadelphia: Globe Bible Publishing, 1894), 177-78.

43. Julia Ward [pseudonym for John Russell Coryell], Estelle’s Millionaire Lover; or, The Prettiest Typewriter in New York (New York: Street & Smith, 1893), 10.

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