It’s been another hard day at the office. That was a standard, white-collar workers’ lament a few years ago. These days “the office” can just about anywhere so the worker might be complaining about the slow Wi-Fi connection at the local coffee shop. The office has been a pervasive part of our culture for some time now; office buildings still dominate the skylines of large cities. At some point in our lives almost all of us have either worked in an office or have been beholding to people work in offices.
Today many of us have an office at home or a private office at work that we can decorate ourselves so there has been an increasing interest among collectors in vintage office equipment. By vintage I mean late 19th and early 20th century devices and furniture that proliferated when the modern office really started to take hold. The office itself though has been around for a lot longer than that.
Offices, places where people do administrative work, write stuff down, organize it, store it and occasionally have meetings have been with us in some form or other since the beginning of civilized society. They were often in a palace or a temple though the term could be applied to any place where people meet to work. The more modern, stand-alone office probably got its start just over a thousand years ago with what is called the chancery. By then, governments in Europe and the Middle East had become complicated enough that they needed separate buildings for administrative work; writing down laws, writs and later, patents.
People who manage offices are sometimes accused of “empire building” and indeed that is exactly what brought about the modern office building. Empires were all about trade, managing overseas trade is pretty complicated stuff; it took a lot of clerks working in one space to handle all the documents which arrived literally by the boatload. The Royal Navy built what is considered the first purpose-built office building in Britain in 1726. The East India Company, which handled all the documentation for British trade with its colonial possessions, set up East India House in London shortly after in 1729.
Over the next couple of centuries the Industrial Revolution ensured a growing demand for office space. All this work needed to be done efficiently, in an urban area but with the least possible cost. The invention of steel and the elevator made tall, compact office buildings possible. By the beginning of the 20th Century large office buildings were sprouting up everywhere; modern life had begun but the push to make offices more efficient didn’t stop there.
Fredrick W. Taylor had been working on improving manufacturing efficiency by measuring how long it took to do things. His Time Study was combined with the work of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth who studied motion, or work methods. Time and Motion soon became the mantra in manufacturing and its principles were also applied to the office.
Office furniture was the first to get an efficiency makeover. Up to then desks usually were fairly tall, with spaces on top to keep letters and such and a roll-top to keep it all secure. In 1915 The Equitable Life Insurance Company introduced the Modern Efficiency Desk which had a flat top and drawers underneath so managers could have a better view of office workers. The new style desks were also better able to handle the technology that was revolutionizing the office; typewriters, calculators, telegraphs, telephones and electric fans.
Today roll-top desks make for dramatic decorations, homage to an earlier era but not many people actually have one because they’re heavy, expensive and take up a lot of room. Most collectors focus on that vintage technology or other tools of the office. It’s somewhat comforting (and easier) to have an old ink well with a fountain pen and blotter, a globe or paperweight.
Typewriters and fountain pens are probably the most popular office collectables but it’s surprising what people can focus on. One prominent European collector, Jos Legrand, has written a small book entirely devoted to office waste paper baskets. Titled The Paradox of the Waste Paper Basket, the book is not just an account detailing different kinds of baskets; he gets quite passionate and philosophical about his subject. The paradox, according to Legrand, is that the office is designed to be a place where work is performed efficiently and quickly but the presence of the basket, a receptacle for mistakes and failed ideas, proves it is less than perfect.
In a world where we need at least four different bins for recycling, garbage and compost, which we think is all new and progressive, it’s interesting to note the waste basket of the 1870s to 1930s was not actually a waste basket; it was the original recycling bin. Paper was becoming much cheaper at the time but it was still not something to casually throw away. According to Legrand the paper-recycling industry employed up to 40,000 people in New York City alone prior to World War I, many of them tasked with separating paper from garbage. And while most of the baskets of the era were made of wire or mesh, (people smoked cigars in offices, they needed to be fireproof) some were actually made out of recycled paper using a process called Vulcanizing, which made them fireproof.
People who work in offices are often disparagingly referred to as “pencil pushers”. Pencils get no respect but there is a very strong and active community of pencil collectors. Not only are the fancy mechanical ones collected, wooden pencils are just as desirable. Pencils have been around for a long time; they were invented in the 16th century in Cumbria, England where the first graphite deposits were found. Pencil-making was a cottage industry in Cumbria until 1832 when the first pencil factory was established there. Early pencils were just a square piece of graphite glued between two pieces of grooved wood which was then polished or varnished, much like today’s carpenters’ pencil. In 1795 a process was perfected that mixed graphite with clay which could then be formed into a round shape and made harder or softer, depending on the mixture.
Wooden pencil collectors (Are they called eraser heads? I don’t know) value rare brand name examples from companies such as Faber Castell (Germany), Dixon (USA, Canada) and even Mitsubishi (Japan). They obsess (that’s the only word for it) over the ferrule, that metal band that holds the eraser. Long, oversized or unusual shaped ferrules are the most desirable.
Staplers are also popular, especially the very modern looking Swingline staplers from the 1960s. I write this column on a 1950s steel office desk which is adorned with a Star brand stapler from 1919. It is made of cast nickel, looks like a Soviet-era submarine and still works perfectly. I bought it at an auction for two bucks, nobody else wanted it. Quick research shows that Star is the company that in 1891 invented the strip-magazine style stapler we still use today. My example is one of the first modern looking staplers, not all that different from plastic ones you can buy new for $20 that fall apart in a few months.
The stapler is literally responsible for getting rid of government red tape because, before it was invented, that’s how many of their documents were bound, hence the expression.
All of these things were at one time just mundane, everyday tools. We might still think of them that way but by collecting them, learning and documenting their history, we also learn a lot more about ourselves and our society.