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COLUMN: Now Mary, I thought I told you, no makeup mirrors at your desk

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Phil Egan

While sorting through some papers recently, I stumbled across my Grade 10 school yearbook from 1961-62. Leafing through its pages brought back memories of the now-disappeared St. Patricia’s High School on Bright Street.

Phil Egan

The most interesting part was looking at the pages devoted to the affiliated St. Patrick’s Private High School and its graduating seniors. Alongside a photo of each senior is a description of his or her future goals.

The comments are revealing. Basically, all the boys wanted to work in the Chemical Valley. The girls wanted to be nurses, teachers, or secretaries.

In 2017, having an ambition to be a secretary is like a boy wanting to be a blacksmith. Jobs are available, but they’re rare.

I thought of this recently when someone dropped off an interesting artifact from that time, a 1961 hardcover issue of the Polymer Corporation’s Stenographer’s Manual.

Stenographers were secretaries who specialized in taking dictation. These were the days before dictaphones and voice recorders. Company managers would dictate letters to “girls,” in the parlance of the day and the manual. The “girls” would record the letters in “shorthand,” an abbreviated writing style that used symbols to write more rapidly than one could in “longhand.”

The process of writing in shorthand was known as stenography, from the Greek words “stenos,” or narrow, and “”graphein,” to write. Girls who took “commercial” in high school learned the art.

The Polymer manual sought to outline the attributes of “the successful business girl.” Sections are devoted to Office Hours (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with 45 minutes for lunch) and explanations of proper punctuation and the description of equipment, including typewriters, duplicators, and dictating and transcribing equipment. One section shows how to change a typewriter ribbon.

“When taking dictation, try to avoid disturbing the dictator’s train of thought,” the business girls are warned.

“Do not use snopake to correct typing errors,” is another caution. “Snopake,” as liquid paper was known commercially, betrayed corrections in a letter. In the days before computer word processing letters with even a single error had to be completely retyped.

On the subject of poise, the manual states “the girl who is poised is natural, sincere, and has a confidence in herself. This can be developed.”

Other cautions include, “Don’t refer to your supervisor by his first name,” and “don’t paint your nails or repair your make-up at your desk.”

The office roles described in the Polymer Stenographer’s Manual of 1961 are rigidly stereotyped. Office “girls” work for male supervisors. They dress conservatively and defer to their male superiors.

Such was the world in a local business office of the late 1950s and early 1960s.


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