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The Good Old Days...Not! (Memoirs of a Former Secretary)

by Rose Madeline Mula

Remember the offices of yesterday--when the woman who did ten times the work of the boss (male, of course) for one-tenth the pay wasn't an Executive Assistant?  Back then she was called a secretary.  She was also called a girl, as in, "Let's get together...I'll have my girl call your girl."
      Not only did we "girls" have no respect.  We also had no word processing.  What we had was the typewriter.  For young people who may never have seen one of these ancient contraptions (and for former bosses who wouldn't demean themselves by getting within spitting distance of one), a description follows:
      A typewriter was a single-unit machine with a keyboard similar to that of a computer, but without the function keys.  No monitors.  No printers.  Instead the typewriter incorporated a roller device above the keyboard.  The typist would wind paper into the roller, and as she (typists were never "he") struck the keys, she activated individual levers, one for each letter and symbol, which would spring up and transfer the corresponding character to the paper in the roller.  This was pre-electric machines.  I'm talking manual here--clunkers with keys that one had to pound to activate the levers.  We girls practiced for years in order to increase finger agility and speed.  But when we achieved those goals we were stymied because if we typed too fast, the levers would all pile up on each other, like mad dogs in heat, and would jam. 
       The characters were transferred to the paper through the magic of a typewriter ribbon--a heavily inked, narrow band of fabric on a spool.  We had to wind this ribbon through an intricate pathway of metal guides and then attach it to a take-up spool on the opposite end of the machine.  In the process of installing a new ribbon, we usually managed to transfer most of the ink that was originally on the ribbon to our hands and clothes.  Consequently, after typing a few pages, the print on the paper would become so faint, we would have to install a new ribbon. 
      There were no copying machines in the good old days.  In order to make copies of anything we typed, we used carbon paper.  Remember that?  It was smooth on one side, heavily inked on the other.  We would make multi-decker paper "sandwiches"--the original on top, backed up by tissue-thin sheets called onion-skin, one for each copy needed, with sheets of carbon paper interspersed between the onionskins.  When a typewriter key was struck, in addition to leaving its mark on the original, it would also transfer ink from the carbon sheets to the onionskin's.  Unfortunately, the impression would be fainter on each succeeding copy.  By the time, the key hit copy number five or six, you could barely tell it had been there.  Which meant, of course, that when we needed more copies, we would have to re-type an original with yet another carbon stack.  As if once wasn't bad enough.  If we were unfortunate enough to make a mistake, we had no delete key to fix it.  We had to erase each copy separately, inserting slips of paper between each carbon and onion skin to prevent smudging as we erased the top sheets.  We would then erase each copy separately and remove the slips of paper before we resumed typing, if we remembered that is. 
       No copying machines also meant that when we were sending someone an enclosure--an article from a newspaper, a letter received from someone else, the company's P&L statement--if we needed to keep a copy, we had to type the whole damn thing!  And what if we wanted to send copies of the enclosures to anyone else?  See "carbon paper" above.
       Almost forgot (or I tried to repress the memory):  We actually did have other means of making multiple copies of documents for wider distribution.  One was the Ditto machine.  A fiendish invention that distributed indelible purple ink on a master that we typed--as well as on our clothes, hands, feet and--by some mysterious process--even unexposed body parts.  We then affixed this master to a cylinder on the Ditto machine and turned it with a crank to run off copies.
       The mimeograph machine was another diabolic duplicating device.  If we didn't want to get purple ink all over ourselves, instead of using a ditto master, we typed a mimeograph stencil.  This was a blue sheet over a stiff backing on which we typed without a typewriter ribbon so that the keys cut through the stencil.  If we made a mistake, we coated it with a special white glop, waited for it to dry, and then tried to cut the correct symbols through the glop.  Good luck.   When the typing and glopping were finished, we wrapped the stencil around the black-ink coated drum of the mimeograph machine and cranked out the required copies.  The big advantage of this method was no purple-stained clothes and body parts.  We did, however, wind up with black-stained clothes and body parts. 
       Of course, none of these inconveniences affected the boss.  He was oblivious to them all.  He never had to deal with them.  He just lounged in his spacious, windowed office and dictated or scrawled his communications.  Susie Secretary, at her desk in the cramped servants' quarters, did the rest. 
       In addition, she also brewed and served his coffee, and made reservations for his expense-paid leisurely lunches at costly cafes.  And while the boss was enjoying his martinis and Oysters Rockefeller, Susie was at her desk, trying to eat a brown-bag peanut butter sandwich while typing Mrs. Boss's club meetings minutes. 
      Surprisingly, though Susie was often a bright woman and maybe even had a college degree, she was so brain washed that it never occurred to her that something was wrong with this picture.  She was happy she had a job.  Furthermore, she got a whole week off--with pay!  And after five years, she could look forward to two weeks with pay.  Boy, those were the good, old days.


Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.


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