(This post appeared originally in my Jacksonville Business Journal column in 2018.)
Administrative Professionals Week fell this year on April 24. The modern admin assistant is tasked with a variety of important tasks, including data management, supervision, budget responsibilities, even hiring and training. Good riddance to the days when as Peggy Olsen, in Season One of Mad Men, said, “He may act like he wants a secretary, but most of the time they’re looking for something between a mother and a waitress.”
In 1950, secretary was the number one occupation for women outside the home. The Department of Labor offered secretarial and clerical training programs in cities across the nation. Archived documents from the training program still exist, and they provide a fascinating glimpse into what was required of career women in the 1950s and 60s.
Here are some of the criteria for secretarial work from a questionnaire. Do you smile readily and naturally? Do you have a well-modulated voice? When people bore you, do you avoid showing it? Do you avoid showing off what you know? And my personal favorite: Do you avoid “bossing” other people? There are 25 questions, and you score 4 points for each “yes” answer. Score 50 points, and you demonstrate an aptitude for what it took to succeed in business.
The gold standard for secretarial training was New York City’s iconic Katherine Gibbs secretarial school. Katherine Gibbs was a Providence, Rhode Island wife and mother whose husband died without a will, leaving her to earn her own living and support her two sons and unmarried sister. She opened her first secretarial school in Providence in 1911, buying an existing school for $1,000.
In addition to typing and other essential skills, she taught deportment, English, and manners and insisted on a strict dress code (white gloves and hats.) “Katie Gibbs” graduates were highly employable; they were held accountable for zero typing errors and grammar mistakes, and their punctuality and work ethic were legendary. Katherine Gibbs died in 1934, but the school lived on to 1968, when it was sold after training thousands of women for careers in business.
In 1964, Manpower introduced “White Glove Girls” to compete with Kelly Girls. Manpower and Kelly recruited white, middle class and attractive young women as temporary office help, investing in business training and “guaranteeing” their competence. The women were given written guarantees of their expertise and copies of certificates of training, which they handed to employers wearing trademark white gloves.
One of their many virtues, according to ad campaigns, was that they didn’t need to work. In 1957, a Kelly executive described the typical Kelly Girl: “She doesn’t want full time work, but she’s bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she can pay for a davenport or a new fur coat.” Temporary workers were the prefect combination of subservience and accuracy, presenting no threat to male authority or breadwinners’ jobs.
Much has changed since Katie Gibbs opened her school, but it appears that some things never will. According to a New York Times story, making coffee is still a requirement of a good administrative assistant. The story cited the case of clerk and receptionist who sent an email to her bosses about making coffee. “I don’t have a problem getting coffee and/or water for our guests,” she wrote in 2007. But she wasn’t willing to “serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee.” She was fired nine minutes after hitting send.