The workplace was very different in the 1950s

In the 1950s the workplace in the UK was a very different place from that of today, especially in offices.People generally seemed happier in their work than they do today, although it may be simply that people settled for what they had, being grateful to actually have a job and seeing little chance of doing anything about it if they were unhappy.

Monday, 16th September 2019, 2:49 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th September 2019, 2:05 pm
The typing pool at Bassett's in the 1950s
The typing pool at Bassett's in the 1950s

They worked much longer hours, in much more uncomfortable conditions and with much less holidays.

Many jobs were seen to be ‘jobs for life’ especially in local government or a Sheffield steel works, often with a gold watch at the end of it, or even a gold carriage clock when you certainly had little interest in watching the clock any more. Apparently today there is more work related stress, in part attributed to modern technology like laptops and iPhones, higher expectations in standards of living and the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’

Many women still stayed at home when I was growing up and didn’t go out to work, the average weekly wage in 1952 was £7.50, the working week was usually around 40-48 hours and if you were lucky you got sixteen days holiday a year. There was 8.7 million people working in manufacturing industries compared to the 2.5 million today, with 880,000 employed in mining, today only 60,000.

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Office work has changed as much as anything, especially for women.

People may be familiar with the images of the 1950s office as portrayed in programmes like ‘Mad Men’, with booze, cigarettes and a sexually charged atmosphere, not least because of the pointy bras, high heels and stockings worn by the secretaries, but that popular image of women wasn’t just common to the US. It was just the same here in the UK.

The dress code was pretty much the same whichever side of the Atlantic you were on. Calf length sheath dresses, blouses with dirndl skirts. No trousers, no thick tights and certainly no jeans. Men always wore a suit, collar and tie.

Generations of women went to commercial college when they left school to learn shorthand, typing and other secretarial skills in order to have, as their mothers put it, ‘Something to fall back on’. It was hoped that they would one day rise to the top and actually become a secretary, graduating with honours from the typing pool and, who knows, one day marry their boss.

By the beginning of the 20th century secretaries had become a bit of an icon. Girls wanted to be one and boys wanted to marry one. They were seen as ideal wife material.

An early manual of secretarial skills advised ‘Learn his preferences and obey them even if you do not always agree with his ideas or methods. Assume he is always right, and look after him. A man likes to have his wants attended to’. Sound advice for a wife’s role in those days also.

The stereotypical view of secretaries carried through to the 1950s and 1960s often associated with husband hunting, coffee getting and a sex bomb image which wasn’t helped by many of the saucy seaside postcards of the day depicting buxom blondes sitting on their boss’s knee.

In fact, during the 1960s Helen Gurley Brown in her bestselling book ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ stated that ‘I don’t think that it is wrong to use your sex appeal and femininity to get ahead in your job’.

By the 1970s that statement was considered quite shocking and in fact the term ‘sexual harassment’ was heard for the first time. Not before time, as for decades young women working in offices had endured the unwelcome advances of older men brushing past them or worse in filing rooms.

A friend of mine working in a local Sheffield steel works tells of a persistent pest whose lecherous behaviour was known to the management but it was attributed to his time serving in the Korean War. They were told to just ignore it!

However instructions issued to young women by a secretarial agency included the need to smile readily, be fastidious about appearance, never wear long earrings (in case they catch in the typewriter?) cultivate a pleasing voice, do not gossip and above all conceal boredom.

The equipment in early offices meant that it took forever to actually get a job done. Much of it still dated back to the pre-war era.

Bit by bit accounting machines, dictating machines, reproductive equipment, ‘sit up and beg’ manual typewriters and calculators were upgraded with other smaller innovative items like staplers, hole punchers and pencil sharpeners coming into use, but copying machines remained huge and laborious to use for long enough and often took ten to fifteen minutes to produce one copy.

At least the invention did eventually take off despite the head of IBM, who was first approached with the invention, saying, ‘I don’t know what use anyone could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It wouldn’t be feasible’! Thereby forcing an inventor to found Xerox.

Typing pools, tea ladies, carbon paper, correcting fluid and a protocol including separate dining rooms and toilets and even lifts for the management were all part of early office life.

The ‘clack, clack, ping’ of the typewriter is heard no more and in fact the last typewriter ever to be manufactured in Britain was donated to the National Science Museum in London as representing the end of an era. The staff of the company stood round, many in tears as the machine was packed into a box. I feel like that sometimes when my computer plays up!