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.

Broadly: The History of Erasing Women’s History

Image via Stocksy

Image via Stocksy

by Bridey Heing

In her BBC documentary and forthcoming book, historian and author Amanda Foreman uncovers the historical precedents that have erased women throughout human civilization.

History has long been a boys’ club, from the people being written about to the people writing the books. But historian and author Amanda Foreman is out to change that. With her recent four-part series on BBC aptly called “The Ascent of Woman,” she told the story of women in civilization in four parts. That, however, was just a warm-up. Her upcoming book, The World Made By Women: A History of Women From the Apple to the Pill, is the story of humanity from the perspective of the female half.

Here, Dr. Foreman shares her thoughts on the origins of patriarchy, the historical conspiracy responsible for silencing women, and the figures hidden in history whom we should all know more about.

Continue reading…

The Telegraph: The Ascent of Woman, episode 4, review: passion and erudition

Source: BBC/Silver River

Source: BBC/Silver River

By Gerard O’Donovan

Watching the final part of Amanda Foreman’s The Ascent of Woman (BBC Two) was a reminder of how powerful, inspiring and important television can be at its best. One of Foreman’s chief arguments has been that women have contributed as much to history as men but have rarely been accorded the credit for it.

And this final episode, which focused on a series of extraordinary but little known 19th- and 20th-century revolutionaries and campaigners, offered a formidable exposition of the extent to which so many women have, unforgivably, been written out of that history.

Literally so in the case of the French revolutionary Olympe de Gouges, who published her Declaration for the Rights of Women in 1791 and whose champions Foreman met and interviewed still, 200 years on, marching the streets of Paris to have her contributions fully recognised.

Time and again Foreman offered examples of revolutions in which the contributions of women were encouraged – until the subject of their own rights was broached. Perhaps most fascinatingly in the case of Alexandra Kollontai, an extraordinary firebrand who pushed feminism to the heart of the Bolshevik agenda during the Russian revolution – only to see it rolled back again by Stalin and her considerable achievements wiped from the record.

It was on the subject of forgotten heroines like this that the programme was at its most atmospheric, with Foreman joining candlelit memorial parades in Moscow, or interviewing Kollontai’s natural heirs, the members of Pussy Riot. But she was just as ardent, if not more so, in recalling the better known achievements of campaigners such as Millicent Fawcett, founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, and Margaret Sanger in America, whose tireless (and wonderfully fearless) campaigning for access to birth control eventually led to the development of the contraceptive pill in 1960 – a day when “women’s lives changed forever”.

There were times when Foreman could be accused of oversimplifying her argument. That there were political and social factors other than an unalloyed male desire to suppress the rise of women that perhaps contributed to the extinguishing of some of these feminist flames.

But to argue that would be to miss the point. What Foreman achieved in this episode was to distil the essence of the last two centuries of global striving for equality into the space of a single hour with enormous passion and erudition. Few who watched could be anything other than grateful for her efforts to redress the balance of history, or disagree with her conclusion that it is “vital for the future that we have a proper understanding of the past.”

The Sunday Times: To the barricades once more, ladies, and this time men shall not deny us

Photo: Steffan Hill

Photo: Steffan Hill

If the women-to-the-back debacle of Jeremy Corbyn’s new cabinet has a silver lining, it’s the reminder that women are good for revolutions, but not all revolutions are good for us. For many on the left this is a painful truth, and one often avoided for fear of giving ammunition to the right. Yet for the future, let alone the history, of women, it’s a truth that has to be confronted.

Since the 18th century it has been the same old pattern. The people become restless. Women mobilise against injustice and the status quo. Their participation tips the scale in favour of change. The old regime collapses. A new order emerges. Political reforms ensue. Women demand their fair share. They go home empty-handed.

Continue reading…

The Pool: Why are women so absent from history?

Photo: Stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft by Stewy on Newington Green wall from Rex Features

Photo: Stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft by Stewy on Newington Green wall from Rex Features

Since ancient times, it has been the practice of the victors to obliterate the culture of the losers. The images of ISIS destroying the world’s historical monuments are a sad reminder of the totalitarian nature of conquest.

The first cultural conquest wasn’t of a nation or tribe however, it was of women and specifically their means to self-expression. In the 23rd Century BC, the high priestess of Sumer, Enheduanna, invented literature. She was the first person to realise that writing could do more than record a contract, send a message, or convey facts.  It was her genius and vision that resulted in the creation of the poet, poetry, and literary form.

Sargon the Great, her father, had appointed Enheduanna high priestess in the hope that she would be able to help him unite the disparate cities of Sumer into a single functioning empire. She more than rose to the challenge, using religious poetry to create a unified theological tradition that embraced all the Sumerian gods and goddesses under one political entity, the rule of Sargon.

Continue reading…

DailyMail: The agony of living with bound feet: Chinese woman, 84, reveals how her feet were broken and bound when she was just six years old

Photo: BBC/Silver River

Photo: BBC/Silver River

By Lucy Waterlow

A Chinese woman has revealed how she endured having her feet bound when she was only six years old, even though the painful procedure had been outlawed.

Wang Huiyuan, now 84, who lives in the rural Tonghai County, Yunnan, had the ‘beauty treatment’ in the 1930s, decades after it had been officially banned in 1902.

‘Then it was fashionable to bind feet. Everyone did it. If not, you’d be laughed at, “look at her big, flat feet”. Once I was laughed at, I bound my feet,’ she explained to Dr Amanda Foreman on BBC documentary The Ascent Of Woman.

The octogenarian recalled how the process of binding her feet to make them smaller – an ancient practice that can be dated back to the 13th century – was unbearably painful.

Continue reading…