Historically Speaking: How the Office Became a Place to Work

Employees are starting to return to their traditional desks in large shared spaces. But centuries ago, ‘office’ just meant work to be done, not where to do it.

The Wall Street Journal

June 24, 2021

Wall Street wants its workforce back in the office. Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have all let employees know that the time is approaching to exchange pajamas and sweats for less comfortable work garb. Some employees are thrilled at the prospect, but others waved goodbye to the water cooler last year and have no wish to return.

Contrary to popular belief, office work is not a beastly invention of the capitalist system. As far back as 3000 B.C, the temple cities of Mesopotamia employed teams of scribes to keep records of official business. The word “office” is an amalgamation of the Latin officium, which meant a position or duty, and ob ficium, literally “toward doing.” Geoffrey Chaucer was the first writer known to use “office” to mean an actual place, in “The Canterbury Tales” in 1395.

In the 16th century, the Medicis of Florence built the Uffizi, now famous as a museum, for conducting their commercial and political business (the name means “offices” in Italian). The idea didn’t catch on in Europe, however, until the British began to flex their muscles across the globe. When the Royal Navy outgrew its cramped headquarters, it commissioned a U-shaped building in central London originally known as Ripley Block and later as the Old Admiralty building. Completed in 1726, it is credited with being the U.K.’s first purpose-built office.

Three years later, the East India Company began administering its Indian possessions from gleaming new offices in Leadenhall Street. The essayist and critic Charles Lamb joined the East India Company there as a junior clerk in 1792 and stayed until his retirement, but he detested office life, calling it “daylight servitude.” “I always arrive late at the office,” he famously wrote, “but I make up for it by leaving early.”

A scene from “The Office,” which reflected the modern ambivalence toward deskbound work.
PHOTO: CHRIS HASTON/NBC/EVERETT COLLECTION

Not everyone regarded the office as a prison without bars. For women it could be liberating. An acute manpower shortage during the Civil War led Francis Elias Spinner, the U.S. Treasurer, to hire the government’s first women office clerks. Some Americans were scandalized by the development. In 1864, Rep. James H Brooks told a spellbound House that the Treasury Department was being defiled by “orgies and bacchanals.”

In the late 19th century, the inventions of the light bulb and elevator were as transformative for the office as the telephone and typewriter: More employees could be crammed into larger spaces for longer hours. Then in 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management,” which advocated a factory-style approach to the workplace with rows of desks lined up in an open-plan room. “Taylorism” inspired an entire discipline devoted to squeezing more productivity from employees.

Sinclair Lewis’s 1917 novel, “The Job,” portrayed the office as a place of opportunity for his female protagonist, but he was an outlier among writers and social critics. Most fretted about the effects of office work on the souls of employees. In 1955, Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” about a disillusioned war veteran trapped in a job that he hates, perfectly captured the deep-seated American ambivalence toward the office. Modern television satires like “The Office” show that the ambivalence has endured—as do our conflicted attitudes toward a post-pandemic return to office routines.

Historically Speaking: The Ancient Origins of the Vacation

Once a privilege of the elite, summer travel is now a pleasure millions can enjoy.

The Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2019

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Finally, Americans are giving themselves a break. For years, according to the U.S. Travel Association, more than half of American workers didn’t use all their paid vacation days. But in a survey released in May by Discover, 71% of respondents said they were planning a summer vacation this year, up from 58% last year—meaning a real getaway, not just a day or two to catch up on chores or take the family to an amusement park.

The importance of vacations for health and happiness has been accepted for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks probably didn’t invent the vacation, but they perfected the idea of the tourist destination by providing quality amenities at festivals, religious sites and thermal springs. A cultured person went places. According to the “Crito,” one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates’ stay-at-home mentality made him an exception: “You never made any other journey, as other people do, and you had no wish to know any other city.”

The Romans took a different approach. Instead of touring foreign cities, the wealthy preferred to vacation together in resort towns such as Pompeii, where they built ostentatious villas featuring grand areas for entertaining. The Emperor Nero was relaxing at his beach palace at Antium, modern Anzio, when the Great Fire of Rome broke out in the year 64.

The closest thing to a vacation that medieval Europeans could enjoy was undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites. Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, where St. James was believed to be buried, was a favorite destination, second only to Rome in popularity. As Geoffrey Chaucer’s bawdy “Canterbury Tales” shows, a pilgrimage provided all sorts of opportunities for mingling and carousing, not unlike a modern cruise ship.

The vacation went upmarket in the late 17th century, as European aristocrats rediscovered the classical idea of tourism for pleasure. Broadening one’s horizons via the Grand Tour—a sightseeing trip through the major classical and Renaissance sites of France and Italy—became de rigueur for any gentleman. The spa town, too, enjoyed a spectacular revival. The sick and infertile would gather to “take the cure,” bathing in or drinking from a thermal spring. Bath in England became as renowned for its party scene as for its waters. Jane Austen, a frequent visitor to the city, set two of her novels there. The U.S. wasn’t far behind, with Saratoga Springs, N.Y., known as the “Queen of Spas,” becoming a popular resort in 1815.

But where was the average American to go? Resorts, with their boardwalks, grand hotels and amusement arcades, were expensive. In any case, the idea of vacations for pure pleasure sat uneasily with most religious leaders. The answer lay in the great outdoors, which were deemed to be good for the health and improving to the mind.

Cheap rail travel, and popular guidebooks such as William H.H. Murray’s “Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks,” helped to entice the middle classes out of the city. The American Chautauqua movement, originally a New York-based initiative aimed at improving adult education, further served to democratize the summer vacation by providing cheap accommodation and wholesome entertainment for families.

The summer vacation was ready to become a national tradition. In 1910, President William Howard Taft even proposed to Congress that all workers should be entitled to two to three months of paid vacation. But the plan stalled, and it was left to France to pass the first guaranteed-vacation law, in 1919. Since then, most developed countries have recognized vacation time as a legal right. It’s not too late, America, to try again.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Where ‘King Arthur’ Came From, and Why the Film Failed

Charlie Hunnam, that sword and that stone, in ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.’ PHOTO: WARNER BROS. PICTURES

In the movie business, even the stuff of legend is no sure bet: The box-office returns for the latest version of the perennially popular Arthurian stories, “ King Arthur : Legend of the Sword,” have marked the film as one of the biggest flops yet for 2017.

What went wrong? High on the list of critics’ complaints was the rewriting of Arthur’s character and story to make him seem more down-to-earth and less like the virtuous leader of legend. The Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called the film “a choppy hunt for the grim, the grungy, the darkness of dungeons and the clamor of a war-torn world.” Continue reading…