Pre-Tech Office (Part I): Office work in the historic 1960s
What was it like to work in an office in the 1960s, almost completely without technology of any sort? This is the first in a series of three glimpses of small-office systems and methods in the period 1960-1990, three of the most significant decades as we moved from near-Dickensian technology to the first viable small computers for the average business. So just what was it like back in 1960?
Getting Things Done, 1960s style
Most readers will have very little idea of the world before computers and can hardly imagine the primitive tools available to the office worker of 1960. While David Allen hadn’t formulated his Getting Things Done philosophy (probably hadn’t formulated anything, come to think of it) we did have systems but they were based on age-old techniques, involving card indexes, lots of ledgers and books and complex cross-referencing. They worked up to a point, but we spent hours and days doing what a computer can now do in a few seconds. And like all manual systems (and sometimes even some modern computerised applications) they were subject to the GIGO principle - garbage in, garbage out.
I have had hands-on experience of office work over 50 years, first as a humble clerk in a bank, then a more exciting role as a journalist for a weekly motor cycle magazine; and finally as owner of a communicative agency employing up to 50 staff. This is therefore a very personal view of office life.
Back in 1960, straight from school, I was a thin, nervous youth working in a small branch of the National Provincial Bank in Lancashire. It was a grim old place that hadn't changed much in a hundred years. There were rows of high, sloping mahogany desks with a lip along the bottom edge to stop the enormous bound ledgers slipping off. Sitting on the high stool in front of the ledger I felt empathy for Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I was “Evans” or, if the senior staff were feeling particularly benevolent, “Young Evans”. The service counter was a free and open place where cashiers (tellers in the US) stood on one side (no chairs) and faced the customers over a simple flat desk about three-feet deep. No security precautions appeared to be necessary back then.
Everyone in the bank was equipped with an impressive array of rubber stamps with bank name and address, sundry statements of fact (PAID, FILED) and the all-important branch stamp with date which was the essential imprimatur for any legal document. These were the tools of our trade, alongside pencils, steel dip-in pens, paperclips, filing strings (a short length of string with metal T bars at either end for holding papers together) and the mechanical stapler. And the most important ingredient was the human brain which was used for all calculations.
Twitter client 1960The sole nod to modernity in our branch was a TELEPHONE which sat at the back of the office in a large mahogany cubicle styled on an old-fashioned red phone kiosk. This antique instrument, definitely pre WWII, sported a large white lever which switched the line through to the single extension in the manager's office. When it rang, though a large external bell on the roof of the kiosk, whoever was nearest would rush into the cubicle and take the call. None of us was very familiar with the telephone because none of us had one at home. It was a very advanced and important means of communication and was paid extreme deference.
As a new boy, coming from an outer suburb where phones had no dial and you had to pick up the "receiver" and ask the operator for a number, I was at first flummoxed by the dial on the office phone. An instruction course was quickly arranged.
That was the sum of our mechanisation, apart from a single pre-war Royal typewriter which was user for letters and for copying customer statements from the handwritten ledgers onto pre-printed statement forms. It was my job to type the statements and I'm eternally grateful for this because I became a competent and fast touch typist. There’s nothing like reproducing a hand-written ledger on a page of statement paper while the customer is waiting impatiently at the counter. It needs nerves of steel and a ready eraser (called a rubber in Britain) for correcting the frequent typos. Most statements I produced were a disgrace to the bank, but it was all we knew.
iType: Pages and Numbers in one convenient packageThe Royal was as modern as it got. This was well before viable small computers were thought of. We knew about computers, of course, but we called them electronic brains and only the largest companies could afford the millions of pounds they were rumoured to cost. We sat in the staff room reading stories of the latest electronic brains that filled a whole room and did worked wonders of calculation. All we could imagine was they they were enormous adding machines; the very idea of being able to use them for typing letters, manipulating photographs or for project management was in the realms of science fiction.
No, in our little world it was the human brain that reigned supreme.
We didn't even have an adding machine, still less a comptometer or one those enormous mechanical NCR accounting machines which bigger organisations could employ. Mechanical adding machines were complicated and very expensive because of the old British duodecimal currency system (more on that later).
Everything we did was done the hard way, by hand and nimble brain. I would sit on my high stool before the ledger entering cheques and credit slips to individual customer accounts. Dip-in pen and ink was obligatory and ballpoint pens, which had been around for about ten years, were strictly banned as being too modern, messy and ugly in output. Woe betide Young Evans if he blotched a balance or mangled a payee.
After entering all this stuff it was necessary to list all the customers' balances on a large cash sheet and ensure the total tallied with yesterday's balance plus all the credits and minus all the cheques. It never did, of course, and many hours were spent checking accounts one by one.
Adding pre 1971. iPhone and Notesy AppPounds, shillings and pence
1 shilling = 12 penceWe were then working in the old duodecimal currency that continued its ten-century run up to "Decimal Day" in 1971. That year, on 15 February, our current decimal system was introduced - 100 pence to one pound. Convenient, of course, and the conversion came just in time for Britain to take advantage of the computerised world of the late century.
Back in 1960, though, we had pounds, shillings and pence. There were twelve pennies to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, or 240 pennies to a pound. Our long list of balances were "cast" or calculated manually.
First all the pennies had to be added from the third column and divided by twelve. The odd pence were entered as a total while the shillings were carried over to the middle column. The total tally of shillings was then mentally divided by twenty, with anything up to 19 remaining as a total in the centre column. The pounds were then added to the first column. A grand total would be something like £750 3s 9d. It sounds incredibly laborious and it was, especially if, as often happened, the sheet didn't balance and had to be checked again.
None of these methods had changed in 200 years. Everything had to to be done by pen and brain. It’s surprising, though, how automatic it became to add up long lists of the old £ s d*. I can still do it rapidly and fairly accurately, despite not having needed the skill for 40 years. I suppose it’s like swimming or riding a bicycle.
What about archival routines? Well, it was again my job to sort all the day's vouchers (cheques and credits) into alphabetical order by customer. Then I would combine the daily piles into one large monthly stack which was parcelled up in thick brown paper (with string and sealing wax because we didn't have adhesive tape) and "filed" in the boiler room beneath the banking hall.
This boiler room, next to the strong room, was a veritable hell. Many sweaty days were spent down there searching for a particular cheque, sometimes from the 1920s or 30s, to settle one legal argument or other. Having located the particular brown-paper parcel and performed an autopsy, we mostly threw the dismembered packet to the back of the pile. As a result, chaos reigned and the next seeker after that particular month was doomed.
Despite all this, work in the bank was fun. We certainly didn't know any better ways to do things and we worked exactly as our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers had done.
Later, early in the 1960s I gave up banking and moved to London to become a journalist, a far more perilous calling. It was all very exciting to be able to ride and test all the latest motorcycles. But the office wasn't much of an improvement on the bank and really hadn't changed since the first issue in 1903. Much of our time was spent behind the typewriter rather than behind the handlebars of a Triumph Bonneville.
1960s Linotype machineInstead of one ancient telephone, though, we had several ancient telephones on several ancient desks. My own phone at last! I felt empowered. And we had a large collection of prewar manual typewriters on which I could further hone my communication skills ( all of which was good preparation for the computer age to come).
That was as far as it went with mechanisation. Copy for publication was typed on flimsy paper, with a carbon copy kept for reference, and sent down to the compositors in the adjacent print works. There our gems were spewed out in hot metal on a Linotype machine and rough prints were sent back in long strips, called galleys, for correction. All was extremely laborious and low-tech.
Keeping in touch
Communications hadn't changed in 50 years. We had telephones, telegrams and postage stamps. Copy from remote sporting events was phoned in on a Sunday evening by assorted hacks and I would sit at the typewriter with a 1930s Bakelite headset on my ears, typing the reports and voicing queries into the large speaking trumpet. Errors abounded but no one seemed to notice.
Even getting materials such as photographs around the country was fraught with difficulties. No UPS office round the corner in those days: The Royal Mail had a monopoly in matters of moving things around and they did it with a bad grace. On one occasion, I remember, our entire reportage of a major road race in the Isle of Man was in jeopardy because of a strike by ferry workers. Unfortunately I was responsible for getting the negatives to London in just a few hours.Facebeak.com
I solved it by contacting a sister publication, The Racing Pigeon, which kindly despatched a fast bird to the island ahead of the strike. The energetic avian carried the precious negatives back to London where I retrieved them from the rooftop pigeon loft at The Coo Press Ltd. We beat the opposition to press and I learned a thing or two about good communications.
Office work in the 1960s (or 1920s, or 1850s) was a labour-intensive operation involving inkwells, steel pens, monster ledgers, carbon paper, blotting paper and lots of string. It was in this world that I took the step, in 1968, to start my own public relations business, a one-man-band in a small office in Mayfair, London. I met the clients, wrote their press releases, duplicated them on to headed paper, collated and folded the sheets and manually addressed envelopes to newspapers, periodicals and freelance writers. I was head cook and bottle washer, but better times were approaching. In 1970 we were at the dawn of the new age in office management.
* The abbreviations £ s d (or "ell-ess-dee") stood for pounds, shillings (20 to the pound) and pence (240 to the pound, 12 to the shilling). The d comes from the Latin denarius or penny. Since decimalisation the abbreviation for penny has been the more logical p.