Throwback Thursday: Jobs for the girls, but many were a chore...

In the 1950s and 1960s, many women were directed into office work, which could be menial and dull, says JO KERRIGAN
Throwback Thursday: Jobs for the girls, but many were a chore...

EARNING A LIVING: Staff at Lamkin’s tobacco factory, Cork, in the early part of the 20th century.

CAN you remember your very first job in an office? Or where you trained to get those basic skills? Did you have any idea on leaving school where you were headed?

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, not too many had plans for their future, other than getting out of those school gates and never going back. Career training, if it existed at all, was in its infancy.

“They were very advanced, or so they thought, at St Angela’s, back in the early ’60s,” recalls Annette. 

“Those in sixth year had to dress up one day in their most formal outfit — usually a ‘costume’ of jacket and skirt — and come in to the head nun’s study where she sat behind her desk pretending to be an interviewer.

“You had to sit down neatly, with your hands folded on your lap, and tell her what your plans were for going out into the world.

“Of course, most of us just muttered something about taking a shorthand/typing course, and got out of there as quickly as we could.

“It would have been nice if she asked us about studying brain surgery or nuclear fission or something, but that wasn’t the way they viewed female school leavers back then.”

The best place to get a qualification in those basic office skills of shorthand and typing, filing and composing letters, was on the Post-Matric Secretarial course at the School of Commerce (now the College of Commerce) on Morrison’s Quay.

“Not everybody took the Matric, of course, since it was really the entrance exam for UCC,” says Jane, “but you could ‘buy’ it from your Leaving Cert, so that was OK.”

The ‘School of Comm’ was like a birthday party after a convent education, Jane says delightedly.

“You had to work hard of course, but they treated you more like adults, and you had different tutors for each subject, which was great.

“We had a lovely old gentleman, Mr Weldon, for English, and another delightful man for correspondence — was it Mr Lynch? He showed us how to start a letter properly, ‘We are in receipt of yours of the 27th ult...’. And one man who taught us to tot up pages of figures efficiently — I can still remember how to do that.”

The serious work came in the shorthand and typing classes.

LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE: A vintage Gregg Shorthand dictionary
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE: A vintage Gregg Shorthand dictionary

“We did Gregg shorthand at the ‘School of Comm’, but I know other secretarial colleges in Cork used Pitmans.  You sat in rows, turned sideways, with your notebook on your lap and your pencil at the ready, as the teacher marched up and down the aisle chanting ‘G, gay, go, good; G, gay, go good,’ and your pencil described a curve on the page to represent the letter G.

“It was brainwashing I suppose really, but it did sink in. I sometimes find myself using it even now, all these years on, when noting down something I’ve heard on TV, or somebody has told me.”

Mary remembers the typing classes as being very hard going at first.

“We used these huge old heavy sit-up-and-beg machines that had to be belted to get the letter to hit the paper. When you were getting started, they put a cover over the keyboard with just enough room for your hands, and you had to look at a chart above that to see where your fingers should go — in the dark, as it were!

“But we had such fun there. It was a real sense of release, being out in the world and learning new skills, and not a nun to be seen!”

The girls from that secretarial course were much in demand in the city, and there was never any delay in finding a job. But gone now were the carefree student days. Offices back then were dark and cheerless places, with rigorous rules and regulations.

In large firms, the typing pool was the norm: an entire room filled with typewriter tables, with an obedient girl sitting at each one, battering away at those recalcitrant keys.

At the top, on a raised dais, sat the supervisor, her eagle eye keeping a close watch on everyone. Frightening when you look back from today’s bright, open-plan offices, but that was the way it was back then.

Pat, who worked as a ‘temp’ with one of the Cork city agencies in the early ’60s, says the huge companies were often hard environments to work in.

“I still have a shudder when I remember Ford’s. You got there in the early morning and were shut in for the day. It was a huge typing pool, with only little windows high up in the wall (presumably so typists couldn’t look out) and this glaring old dragon sitting up in front on high, watching you like a hawk.

“You didn’t even get to see the person (always a man, naturally) who had dictated the letter you were typing: all you got was a tape, and you put on the headphones, typed up whatever was on that, put the letters into one basket, the finished tape into another, and fished out a fresh tape from the pile that kept coming in.”

What was worse, she recalls, was that you had your own specific time slot for going to get a coffee and/or visiting the ladies.

“You didn’t connect with the others, they had separate time slots. It was awful really. No contact, no friendships, not even a knowledge of who originally wanted those letters done. After one fortnight there, I specifically asked never to be sent back!”

Eileen remembers her first job, which was straight out of secretarial college.

“It was at Kincora Carpets on the Kinsale Road. We lived up near St Luke’s in the city, so I had to get up very early each morning, and cycle all the way across to the Kinsale Road, and spend the entire day there.

“Because it was so far out, you had to bring your lunch with you, and didn’t get home until after six at least.

" All my friends seemed to be working in the city centre, and were able to meet up at lunchtime or after work, but I was always too late for that.

“From being one of a great gang with lots going on, I went overnight to being somebody on the outside. I hated it. All the others in the office were so much older than me. They got on fine together, but they were adults, and I was still a teenager.”

Discovering real typing tasks too was a shock, she admits. “I had got pretty good at the college, and could type well, but being praised by the supervisor for a good effort was very different to being handed a pile of scribbled notes and being told to type them up on multi-carbon invoices.

“I seemed to spend most of my time that first week in tears, making mistake after mistake, stealthily pulling the multi-pack of sheets out of the typewriter, and pushing them into the waste paper basket, before getting out yet another clean one. In between, I would gaze miserably out the window and wonder what my friends were doing back in the city.”

HAPPY WORKPLACE: Women workers at the Ideal Weatherproofs factory in Cork in 1953. These employees clearly enjoyed their work, but many jobs for women in those days were mundane.
HAPPY WORKPLACE: Women workers at the Ideal Weatherproofs factory in Cork in 1953. These employees clearly enjoyed their work, but many jobs for women in those days were mundane.

There were worse things than multi-carbon invoices, though. Anybody remember stencils? And that lumbering old black monster, the Gestetner (or was it a Roneo?)

Minutes or other important documents that needed multiple copies were typed up on special a wax-coated sheet, which was then affixed to the Gestetner. It had to be laid absolutely flat with no creases. Then a handle was cranked, which inked the stencil, and copies were run off. Afterwards, the stencil had to be taken off carefully and laid against a covering sheet before being stored for the next time it was needed.

“The ink you got on your hands!” recalls Stephanie. “And all over your blouse too, if you were unlucky, and you usually were!”

Trips to the washroom were frequent when it was a copying day. 

“If we could have fast-forwarded to the future, when you just pressed a button on the photocopier, believe me, we would have!”

Another unwelcome but regular job was changing the ribbon on the typewriter. After thousands of obediently-typed letters, the ribbon ink started to run out, the letters got more and more faded, and it was time to ask the supervisor, or the manager of office stores, for a new ribbon.

Tackling that task was roughly equivalent to assembling a new flat-pack cabinet today, but without the instruction leaflet or the free screwdriver. You toiled with it, swore under your breath, got ink all over yourself, and then, when you sat down triumphantly to get on with the letters, found you had put it in backwards...

Don’t forget those carbon copies, urges Margaret. Of course, how could we leave those out?

“Remember how it was done? One top copy on the nice headed paper of the company, plus at least two copies, one for this file, one for that. Carbon paper between each layer. If you made an error, then little scraps of paper had to be placed between each layer while you tackled the top one with a harsh typewriter rubber (avoiding, if possible, the risk of rubbing a hole right through the sheet). Then you did the same with each layer, correcting the error again on each, and finally continued with the letter, only to realise when you finished that you had omitted to take out the little scraps of paper and there were nice white blanks on the copies.”

Did boys not go into offices at all, you might ask? Not as typists or secretaries, no. Young lads might get a job as office boy, licking stamps, opening envelopes, running messages. Those with the Leaving Cert might get taken on as trainee managers, following their bosses around and learning how to sit behind a desk, dictate letters, or take management decisions.

“It always annoyed the heck out of me,” says Connie, “that I would have taken an entire year’s course and got really good office skills, while this lad of my own age, who hadn’t done anything so useful, got to dictate letters to me, because he couldn’t type them himself!”

There is so much more that sounds strange to our ultra-modern ears, but anyone who worked in an office in the ’50s and ’60s will remember it all very well.

Tell us about your own experiences! Let’s hear your memories of those first office jobs, the machines you had to learn to work with, the mistakes you made. We want to hear from all of you! Email jokerrigan1@gmail.com.

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