Vintage Business #5: The Secretary

Job Voyager is a cool program that plots the popularity of a job over time. You can see the secretary position had its heyday beginning prior to the 1950's and kept climbing until 1970, when it went into free-fall off a cliff.

Our boys had come back from WWII and found women infiltrating the workforce; subsequently, Rosie the Riveter became Rosie the Stenographer. The meteoric rise of the secretary was born. Mad Men recreates this alien office world, so foreign to us today that it almost seems like it belongs on the Sci-Fi Channel (Err, umm, excuse me - Syfy Channel. Whatever). Who cares about the plot - it's just fun to watch what the office environment was like five decades ago.

Men could smoke at their desks, women had to go to a special lounge. If a woman got pregnant, she was expected to quit - no exceptions. They were expected to dress to the nine and do the bidding of the males in charge no questions asked. Changing careers to something more profitable and less demeaning was often not an option - universities preferred to accept veterans, and the number of female collegians dropped sharply.

During the heyday of the vintage secretary (now, I guess, they're called administrative assistants) they were often the object of jokes - the office secretary was the rival to the boss' wife, the sexy young tart eager to drop into her boss' lap at the snap of a finger.  Burt Bacharach's "Wives and Lovers" perfectly captures the perceptions of the times...

"Day after day,
There are girls at the office,
And men will always be men.
Don't send him off with your hair still in curlers.
You may not see him again."

Okay, and so what? Your wondering why does it matter that secretaries were treated as less than equals before the 1970's. Well, I bring it up to ask you a simple question: Is it any better today? You're probably tempted to say "yes", given the fact that many more women occupy supervisory roles and have entered professional fields undreamed of before the 1970's. This is true.

However, many women are still getting the shaft. For example: two-thirds of Wal-Mart's hourly workers are female, yet women hold only one-third of managerial positions and make up less than 15 percent of store managers. I wonder if these poor cashiers who aren't given health care or a bathroom break look at Mad Men secretaries as unfortunate. Hmmm. I doubt it.

Whether your opinion is that it's gotten better or worse, you have to admit it's fun to take a look at a time when men smoked at their desk, poured themselves a glass of Scotch, and told their secretary to take dictation. It's so foreign and devilishly "wrong" that you can't help but want to step back in time and live that life just for a day.

Personally, I spend most of my day in a cubicle, along with legions of other men and women. Most of them, I have to admit, are pretty miserable. The pay and benefits are good, but the old-time mojo is not there. There's no Scotch on my desk, no cigarettes, no sexy secretary taking dictation... just me, my computer and my cubicle. (yawn)

For those of you, men and women, who also miss the vintage mojo, here's some images of the vintage office to pep you up. Take a trip back to a time when the workplace looked like Mad Men and not The Office. Enjoy.

image source

image source

Read the book Applied Secretarial Practice on Flickr

Sorry about the "nope!", but I don't feel like having my blog flagged. :-(

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  1. Harumph!!

    1. It's "Administrative Professional" to you!
    2. It's still like that. You're "just a secretary" when it all comes down to it, no matter if you're running the entire damned company from your desk.
    3. They don't let you dress like that now. Cover those boobs, dammit!
    4. Office parties are no longer places to troll for husbands. Damn.

    Those damned feminists ruined it for us!!

  2. these are awesome awesome pics

  3. My how the times have changed. We went from Don Draper to Bill Lumburgh far too quickly for my taste. I"ll take a cig and a scotch any day over a "um...yeah".

    Even Irwin Fletcher from the movie "Fletch" is not afraid to use the word 'secretary'. To quote Fletch whilst he is speaking to Madeline, the secretary of Mr. Stanton Boyd (Boyd Aviation),

    Madeline: I'm sorry, who are you again?
    Fletch: I'm Frieda's boss.
    Madeline: Who's Frieda?
    Fletch: My secretary.

  4. I'm amazed anyone got any work done back then with those bullet bras.