This picture was considered akin to porn. There are several things at work in this photo: a woman as the main focus has her legs up on a writing desk upon which a typewriter appears. The woman’s appearance and position in the photo is boldly masculine. Her legs which show her ankles and calves are on display to the (presumably) male viewer. She also holds a pen and paper in her hand implying that she is a writer and/or educated.
Behind her there is also a bicycle which to Victorians was a symbol of freedom; especially worrisome was that women latched onto this mode of transportation. This meant more women were out in the public eye where single men could view single women in un-chaperoned settings. This also meant that men could approach these women and often these resulted in confrontations as the attentions would be often of the unwelcomed sort.
The typewriter became the vehicle that granted women entrance into the workforce on a large scale for the first time. The first typewriting school was in New York in 1881 at the YWCA and the women had to under go a physical assessment in order to determine their ability to “endure” the rigours of the course. The typewriter was an American export along with the concept of using women as a labour force.
Some key facts:
The typewriter’s first recorded patent was filed by Henry Mill in 1714, after which many inventors tried many permutations with little or no success until Remington mass produced its version in 1874.
The Education Act of 1870 opened the way for female education. Women’s colleges at Cambridge and Oxford were opened.
The New York branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) offers typing classes in 1881 amidst public outcry. Women had to be deemed physically fit in order to endure the demanding “rigours” of the course.
In 1887, Remington sold 14,000 units of their Remington #2 machine. By 1900 Remington sold half a million units. In 1889, 63.8% of clerical workers were women (American stats) (Hoke 77).
The typewriter girl was an American export. British markets were slow to adopt the machines, and the women as typists.
Janet Hogarth (married name was Janet Elizabeth Courtney) was the Bank of England’s first ever female clerk in 1893, and highly educated with first-class honours in Philosophy from Oxford. She sorted cancelled bank notes all day. She said, “It was almost unbelievably soothing to sit in the quiet upper room with nothing to do but lay out banknotes in patterns like patience cards” (Messenger web)
Typewriter girls weren’t allowed loose at lunch for fear of what might happen! As one male worker at the Bank of England said, “The streets it was held were safe enough, but once she the woman clerk entered this forbidding fortress every imaginable horror was predicted” (Messenger web)
The feminization of the work force happened fairly quickly after the typewriter’s introduction but the job of typist remained “sex-neutral”. Women were not taking jobs from men, but filling newly created jobs. Women workers were ideal because they only worked until marriage (as per law until 1960s) creating a revolving workforce of girls, who wouldn’t need to be paid very much (about £85/year or $312/year).
The typewriter girl became her own best/worst enemy. Popular literature seized this new woman; she became an “… “unfamiliar sexual type”; indeed, on first sight, she seems more male than female… with distinct overtones of lesbianism…” (Keep “The Cultural Work” 10). The campaign to sexualize the woman worker was to put men at ease with the new visibility women were embracing (Keep “The Cultural Work” 9). This created the notion that the typewriter girl made a habit of sexual misadventures and the rumors would fly when a girl married her boss. However, women’s suffrage groups used the typewriter girl as a way to gain more rights, the right to be seen but “…that is, to be acknowledged as an active participant in the world of social relations, but resists becoming, in the process, a spectacle” (Keep “The Culture Work” 15).
(I did a presentation on the typewriter for my Victorian class of which I have included parts of my handout sheet here. That class was super awesome. We had so many great discussions that we hardly left time to talk about the books we were to read!)
Hoke, Donald. ”The Women and the Typewriter: A Case Study in Technological Innovation and Social Change.” Business History Conference. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb 2014
Keep, Christopher. “The Introduction of the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, 1874.” Branch Collective. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
—-. “The Cultural Work of the Type-Writer Girl.” Victorian Studies 40.3 (1997): 401-422. Scribd. Web. Jan 27. 2014.
Messenger, Robert. “Women and Typewriters in British Offices.” ozTypewriter. ozTypewriter, Jul. 2013. Web. Jan 27, 2014.
For Further Reading
Cameron, S. Brooke. “Sister of the Type: The Feminist Collective in Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl.” Victorian Literature and Culture, 40. pp 229-244. Print.
Holland, Evangeline. “The Type-writer Girl.” Edwardian Promenade. Edwardian Promenade, Jan 2013. Web. Feb 1, 2014.
“The Earliest Writing Machines.” Early Office Museum. Early Office Museum. Web. Feb 1, 2014.