Illustration by Joe Wilson of a PC
© Joe Wilson

When I started working in an office in the early 1980s, we smoked cigarettes at our desks, banged out articles on heavy typewriters and at lunchtime decamped to the office canteen or the pub for a hotplate of shepherd’s pie. Everything I’ve written since then about modern offices – the wireless, smokeless, noiseless places where we now work – has been coloured by my memory of how things used to be.

But now I find my sense of history is all skewed. I’ve just finished making a series for Radio Four about the past 250 years of office life, and have discovered half the things I thought of as new fads turn out not to be new at all; while many things I took to be eternal facts of office life are actually rather recent. There are, however, some constants – like lust and boredom – as well as some things that have gone for ever. The tea lady isn’t coming back.

The following lists aim to set the record straight.

Six new fads that aren’t new

1. Working from Starbucks

This recent trend is 350 years old. London’s first coffee shop was opened in 1652, and was an instant hit with men insuring ships or trading in sugar or human hair. Within 50 years there were 3,000 of them – an expansion rate that makes Starbucks’ invasion of the UK capital look sluggish. There were two differences between coffee houses and the modern version. The point then was to meet people – now it is to be alone with your laptop. And the drink of choice was not a caramel frappuccino with extra cinnamon but a blackish brew said to resemble “syrup of soot and essence of old shoes”.

2. Working from home

People always used to work from home – not because of the internet or to save petrol – but because there weren’t any offices. In 1762, when the Barings set up at their home in Mincing Lane, the banking was done downstairs, while upstairs Mrs Baring raised 10 out of their 12 children. It was a time of multiskilling: clerks, who lived in too, were expected to be equally handy totting up numbers, running errands and handing round bread and butter soldiers at teatime.

3. Paying for internships

Modern interns are expected not only to work for nothing but sometimes have to pay for the privilege. Yet 200 years ago this sort of thing was routine. When a teenage Charles Lamb got a sought-after job in the accounts department at the East India Company, he had to put down a £500 bond against good behaviour, and find two sponsors to do the same, and then worked for two years with no salary at all. That cost the equivalent of £140,000, making a week’s internship at Vogue – which went for $42,500 at a charity auction last year – seem quite reasonable.

Illustration by Joe Wilson of a breakfast egg
© Joe Wilson

4. Eating breakfast at your desk

A young colleague likes to start the day crunching his way through a bowl of Fruit’n’Fibre over his keyboard; John Stuart Mill got there 170 years before him. Every day he walked from his house in Kensington to his office in Leadenhall Street where he had a boiled egg and a cup of tea at his desk. The difference was that Mill’s breakfast was brought to him by a servant. My colleague has to pour out his Fruit’n’Fibre himself.

5. Twitter

The microblogging site did not invent brevity. It was invented on May 24 1844 when Samuel Morse tapped out the first telegraph: “What hath God wrought?” What He wrought turned out to be a very big deal indeed, laying the way for the internet and leading on March 21 2006 to Jack Dorsey tapping out the first tweet: “just setting up my twttr”. It’s not surprising that as a piece of prose, Morse’s message was vastly superior: early telegraphs cost the equivalent of $25 a message, which meant you didn’t just write any old thing.

6. Email destroying peace of mind

Our fears about email making us stressed are precisely the same as the ones we had 100 years ago with the telephone. An article published in Telephony magazine in 1913 reported that some people were made hysterical by being endlessly available on the telephone and fielding calls that flooded in at the rate of less than one a day.

And it was the telephone, not the BlackBerry, that destroyed holidays. An advertisement from 1914 advised business people that the telephone would allow them, while on holiday fishing for trout, to stay in touch with what was happening in the office.

Six things that really are new

1. Managers

Until the 20th century there were hardly any managers at all. Britain went through the industrial revolution with hardly any – instead, there were owners, gang bosses and overseers. The word “management” wasn’t used in its modern sense until a hundred years ago. But now there are 5m of them in the UK, 10 times as many as in 1911. Without managers, office life as we know it simply didn’t exist: there were almost no meetings, no memos and no need for “leveraging” or “delivering solutions”.

2. Liking your job

The notion that people enjoyed their work was unheard of. JS Mill, who had a cushy job at the East India Company, was more positive than most but even he viewed it as “an actual rest from the other mental occupations which I have carried on simultaneously”. In Victorian times clerks appear to have been permanently wretched. A clerk writing in 1907 referred to his colleagues as “miserable little pen drivers – fellows in black coats with inky fingers and shiny seats on their trousers”. They sat on high, uncomfortable stools and worked in damp places, and were likely to get tuberculosis as well as backache.

Illustration by Joe Wilson of a yarn ball for crocheting
© Joe Wilson

3. Women

Women in offices were a late 19th-century innovation, introduced as an experiment to cope with growing workload, but became a huge hit. They were cheap, and didn’t need promoting because as soon as they got married, they left and cheaper replacements could be found. Until the first world war, “lady clerks” had separate entrances, staircases and dining rooms. They often worked behind screens and, in some cases, in cages to ensure their morals weren’t messed with.

At Barclays they were allowed on to the roof at lunchtime, where they marched around and sang the company song. There was only one perk enjoyed by lady clerks not available now: they were allowed to knit in quiet periods.

4. Competence

Being adequate at your job is a relatively new invention – at least in the public sector. In the mid-19th century the Civil Service was stuffed full of drooling idiots put there by relatives. A parliamentary paper from 1855 refers to “the most feeble sons in families which have been so fortunate as to obtain an appointment, yes, and others too, either mentally or physically incapacitated, enter the Service”. But then came the reforms of the 1870s and the revolutionary idea that to get a job you needed not only to refrain from drooling but also to know some mathematics and Latin, too.

5. Jargon

When the management style was command-and-control there was no need for jargon. To fire people, you didn’t talk of “demising,” as HSBC did recently. William Lever, founder of the soap company Lever Bros, wrote matter-of-factly of how in the 1920s he had got rid of “inefficient men, and too highly paid men, elderly men and men past their work …I am confident that this has produced a state of fear in the minds of the remainder that if they were not efficient their turn would come next.”

Illustration by Joe Wilson of a man with a tie
© Joe Wilson

6. Casual clothes

The team that brought Apple Macintosh to market in 1984 didn’t just amaze with their product but with their clothes: they were all clad in grey hoodies. Until then, everyone dressed up for work. In Pickwick Papers Charles Dickens describes: “First, taking off that black coat which lasts the year through, and putting on one which did duty last year, and which he keeps in his desk to save the other.” By the 1970s the virtue of smart dress was scientifically proven: according to the bestseller Dress For Success, secretaries of men who wore short-sleeved shirts were late 12 per cent more than those in long-sleeved ones.

Six things that are eternal

1. Lust

This long predates the invention of the lady clerk. As Pepys writes in his diary on June 30 1662: “Up betimes, and to my office, where I found Griffen’s girl making it clean, but, God forgive me! what a mind I had to her, but did not meddle with her.”

By the time women arrived in offices a great deal of meddling went on, and often ended very badly indeed. In 1958 Connie Nichols, a secretary at Eli Lilly, had a long affair with her boss but when she found she’d been discarded for a younger model, she seized a gun and shot him.

2. Badmouthing colleagues

To ridicule workmates appears to be a basic need for office workers. Lamb composed a couplet about a particularly dim clerk called Ward: “What Ward knows, God knows; But God knows what Ward knows!” While the need is constant, the execution has changed – witty couplets have been long since replaced by playing mean pranks on social networks.

3. Beauty premium

Being tall, low-voiced and easy on the eye has always been an advantage. Modern chief executives in the US have been found to be 2.5in taller than the average man and countless studies have shown that the good looking do better. A hundred years ago the beauty bias was made explicit: at the Bank of Scotland in the late 19th century, clerks were “removed from view” due to “diminutive stature”, having a “voice a little peculiar”, or for “their jug ears and red hair”.

4. Petty policies

In my working life some of the most unpopular changes have centred on axing minor perks such as free biscuits. At the East India Company in 1817 there was an outcry when the Christmas party – the “yearly turtle feast” – was scrapped. Even worse was a new initiative that had everyone signing in every 15 minutes throughout the day. A policy that makes Marissa Mayer’s insistence that Yahoo staff turn up to work look laisser faire.

5. Motivational slogans

At the cool Facebook headquarters in San Francisco the walls are covered in notices saying: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

At Larkin Soap building in Buffalo, also pretty cool when it was opened in 1907, Frank Lloyd Wright had this carved into the walls: “Thought, feeling, action.” Such slogans didn’t prove terribly successful: Larkin Soap went bust.

6. Paper

In 1975, BusinessWeek famously predicated a paperless office but for the next 25 years the volume of paper used in offices went on rising. Even though we are now weaning ourselves off it a little, the average worker still generates 2lb of paper a day. I still predict the paperless office will arrive no sooner than the paperless toilet.

Illustration by Joe Wilson of the Twitter logo
© Joe Wilson

Six things that will never come back

1. Ledgers

The end of the ledger was possibly the best news the office ever had. The system of entering all information chronologically in vast books meant nothing could ever be found again. The invention of the filing cabinet in 1868 – which allowed things to be filed alphabetically – was probably a bigger step towards the knowledge economy than the computer.

2. A graveyard of equipment

Items such as quill pens, blotting paper, typewriters, adding machines, mainframe computers, word processors, and fax machines are all gone or going.

3. Noise

The end of the clanking adding machines, typewriters and raucous Bakelite telephones meant the end of noise. Now there is only the light tapping on keyboards and politely vibrating mobiles. Text has replaced talk. The irony is that against all that distracting silence, what have we started to do? Wear headphones.

4. Tobacco

This was the perfect office drug – a pick-me-up and social lubricant all in one. In Dickens’ time it wasn’t cigarettes but snuff: “The clerk smiled as he said this, and inhaled the pinch of snuff with a zest which seemed to be compounded of a fondness for snuff and a relish for fees.” In offices, a relish for fees has outlasted a fondness for tobacco, which has been stamped out from the office, consumed only by a stubborn minority on the pavement outside.

5. Privacy

Lowly workers have always worked open plan while managers had their own offices – until the 1960s and a German movement called Bürolandschaft took away walls and put in pot plants instead. Since then the onward march of open plan has continued, and even if executives manage to hold on to their offices, the walls are now made of glass. Thus anyone wanting a private meeting is forced out of the goldfish bowl and on to the stairwell.

6. The tea lady

In 1666, the wife of the housekeeper at the East India Company started making tea for the directors, and thus the role of the tea lady was born. For the next 300 years she was a cult figure in most organisations with her welcome cry of “Trolley”. In 2003, Isa Allan, a tea lady at Scottish Enterprise, was given an MBE by the Queen for being the “heart and soul” of the place. But even the Queen could not halt the onward march of mechanisation, outsourcing and cost-cutting: the tea lady has been replaced by the coffee machine, the water cooler and Pret A Manger – none of which does the job nearly so well.

‘Lucy Kellaway’s History of Office Life’ is on Radio 4 daily at 1.45pm for two weeks from Monday

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