Remember the redhead from Season 1 of Downton Abbey who took a correspondence course in typing? Remember how shocking it was to everyone that she should want a different life? Well, here’s a little history to go along with that fiction:
When Remington first started marketing typewriters, the company assumed the machine would not be used for composing but for transcribing dictation, and that the person typing would be a woman. Flowers were printed on the casing of early models to make the machine seem more comfortable for women to use.
In the United States, women often started in the professional workforce as typists (called “typewriters” then); in fact, according to the 1910 U.S. census, 81 percent of typists were female. With more women coming out of the home and into offices, there was some concern about the effects this would have on the morals of society. The “typewriter girl” became part of the iconography of the early-20th-century office. The “Tijuana bibles” — adult comic books produced in Mexico for the American market, starting in the 1930s — often featured women typists. In one panel, a businessman in a three-piece suit, ogling his secretary’s thigh, says, “Miss Higby, are you ready for—ahem!—er—dictation?”
At first the word “typewriter” had two meanings – the machine as well as the user. The word “typist” had not yet entered the lexicon. In the case of female typists, this confusion led to the Victorian-era equivalent of ribald jokes. Typewriter salesman: “I thought you already had a typewriter?” Businessman: “Yes, but I married her.” Women and typewriters become the subject of postcards and cartoons.
Here are a few examples:
In spite of these jokes, becoming a typist was one of the few “respectable” jobs an unmarried woman could hold outside the home; the few other choices included teaching, and possibly retail salesgirl.
Women typists and the war:
- The Origin of the QWERTY Keyboard (todayifoundout.com)
- Speed Indicator to Aid Typist (Jan, 1930) (modernmechanix.com)
- Ode to Manual Typewriters (freehandlife.com)
- Typing Through Time: Keyboard History (daskeyboard.com)
- Tyree Callahan and His Amazing Chromatic Typewriter (89lp63.wordpress.com)
- Scott Beale: Chromatic Typewriter, A Modified Typewriter That Prints Colors (laughingsquid.com)
- Typewriter Painting: Hunt & Peck A Masterpiece (geekologie.com)
- From the archive, 10 January 1975: The road to freedom is in a typewriter (guardian.co.uk)