Most of us would be quite taken aback if we walked into an office and did not see someone sitting at a centrally located desk adorned with telephone, work station, pens, note pads, and the other accoutrements of the modern secretary. While we would try to be politically correct and not react (too much) if the individual were male, we are conditioned to expect the presence of a poised lady keeping order in the office. This was not always the case.
Not surprisingly, the earliest secretaries were male; women of the early days of history were too busy with children and household to work outside the home – had it even been allowed. Of course, the tasks of the day were, perhaps, more suited to male muscles than to women at any rate. Prior to the discovery that skins could be worked into parchment, reeds into pointed instruments and various pigments into ink, letters that needed to be duplicated were chiseled out of stone. Kings and emperors required that laws, such as the well known Code of Hammurabi, be copied and taken to the larger cities in their realm. Perhaps if that was still the method of duplication, our lawmakers would be less verbose.
Chisel and stone eventually gave way to styluses on wood, clay and wax. This was still quite labor intensive, which probably led to the development of shorthand. Distribution of the letter or “document” relied on runners, whether mounted or on foot. Long letters tended to be heavy, making transporting them difficult as well as expensive. Historians claim that rulers of this time, including Roman Emperors, were well versed in the shorthand of the day – to the point that they could serve as their own secretaries, if need be.
From its inception, our world has been getting smaller. Tradesmen, businessmen and rulers continue to find it to be in the best interest of their business to communicate with others, often in other languages. The secretary of the 1600s spoke at least four languages, English, Latin, French and German; the best also spoke Spanish and possibly Greek. Many were considered “confidential assistants” for the nobility, often living on the grounds of the manor house so to be available at any hour of the day or night. Men still dominated these jobs, managing correspondence, accounting and protocol. Their desks were chest high, requiring that they stand for long hours while writing or copying documents in the lovely penmanship we consider to be typical of that day. (Personally, I rather suspect that the rest of the literate population had bad handwriting…like most of us!)
The 1800s saw women break into the secretarial field. As industry expanded, paperwork exploded, and the need for an organized person to manage all of it became obvious. They adapted quickly to the new technologies appearing on the scene – telephones, typewriters and carbon paper – with one exception, things which have nearly disappeared from the modern office! By the turn of the century, mimeographs, adding machines and stenographs had appeared in the workplace, freeing the executive to accomplish as much as his team of stenographers and secretary could manage.
Today’s secretary may accomplish many of the same tasks as her sister from 200 years ago, but she does it in a very different way. Copy machines, faxes, computers, the internet, and virtual meetings have transformed the office. The clatter of clickity clickity clack has subsided into a quiet hum, with the occasional beep or bleep.
Despite the transformation of the work place, the need for that poised person to keep an office organized and on track has not changed. Whether the title is secretary, administrative assistant, or some other creative job label, the person is indispensible to both the service of the business’ customers and the smooth operation of the office. As with so many, one day a year is really not adequate to say “thank you”, it is something we need to do daily by our actions if not our words.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .