Inventing the office: The bustling office

Office History Office Trends Arts and Culture

Commerce, trade and education originated in the Renaissance, began to blossom in the Enlightenment - an era characterized by technological advancement - and reached their heyday during the Industrial Revolution. Factories, large cities and the theory of mechanism began to predominate and advancements were fuelled by reason, rationality and the desire for freedom.

The modern office is born: manufactories

Manufactories were manufacturing plants, characterized by specialization, labour division and mass production, often relying only on simple machinery. This new form of production also revolutionised office work, streamlining activities such as planning, writing letters and sales. Given that rapid production sequences required excellent technical and organizational abilities, new standards were established for the size and structuring of offices. While previously a workbench had sufficed for planning and development, now miscellaneous office duties were carried out in a separate room – the office of the manufactory, which marked the development of our modern offices.

From manufactories to industrial manufacturing

From manufacturing plants to factories offices underwent a dynamic development. Office work was increasingly based on the division of labour as a result of automated and refined work processes.

Founding businesses

Industrial manufacturing was prompted by the invention of the steam engine which led to the automation of production sequences. Industrial processes are streamlined ways of mass production which gave rise to international trade, creating new jobs, fuelling needs hitherto unknown and bringing forth novel types of goods. Numerous businesses began to emerge including enterprises for planning and translation, educational institutions, transport businesses, community and state administrations, waste disposal facilities and institutions for archiving and storing cultural and natural goods such as museums and zoos.

Industrious times of industrial production

The word ‘industry’ has its roots in the Latin word industrius, meaning industrious and hard-working. The Industrial Revolution reflects said industrious work attitude which was to infect the entire society. The industrial worker had to be industrious, conforming to the rhythm of the machines. Industrialisation helped to speed up and streamline work processes, resulting in typical forms governance (kratos), i.e. technocracy predominated in production, bureaucracy was characteristic of industrial organisation and political institutions, and ratiocracy - the predominance of reason – governed everyday life. Industrial production does however not imply blind industriousness, but rather a structured, methodical, rational and disciplined work ethic based on strict rules. Machines and assembly lines became the focus of industrial production.

Working with machines was considered a suitable model for office work. As a result, office work was increasingly automated by way of machines.

The industrial office and office staff

Until the mid 19th century, staff working in Kontor buildings or offices were part of a family - of a domestic household. To members of the family they were co-workers and housemates. They were subordinate to the landlord, the patriarch, to whom they were tied with their entire family. Industrialisation succeeded in liberating office workers, making their loyalty to the merchant only subject to remuneration. Family-based offices disappeared along with domestic households and Kontor staff became formal employees.

In the Middle Ages guilds reduced competition by limiting the number of assistants and the quantity of products. Mass production on the other hand required the division of labour, leading to differentiated organizational duties and labour division at the office. Banning small-scale and public activities from the office, such as storing goods and improvising, both of which were characteristic of scriptoria, chancelleries and Kontor buildings, allowed for transferring offices to larger spaces and halls and adapting the office structure to specific functions. With the advent of industrialisation offices were established in factories and tenements.

Hierarchy of spaces

While manufactories were supervised from one room only, industrial enterprises relied on several offices that were subject to one administration. Mass production prompted the emergence of additional offices duties which inspired new occupations – scribe and accountant, wages clerk and cashier, liquidator and general manager, correspondence clerk, copyist, office clerk and apprentice. A strict hierarchy which was reflected by the size and structuring of the rooms – central and busy areas were reserved for mid-level staff, dark and unappealing areas to clerks and apprentices. Whoever was higher in the hierarchy had a right to a private area or was even provided with a separate, comfortable office.

Administration emerged as a result of expanding production and the differentiation of office duties. It required the coordination of tasks, both within the same office and between individual offices.

Women as typists

The aim of industrialisation was to automate every activity, leading to the emergence of calculating machines and typewriters at the office – the typewriters of 1886.

With the invention of the typewriter women began to play a role at the office. Society was in uproar; unions, church institutions and women’s clubs protested. Men were equally perturbed, for employment – even if it involved a typewriter – was still a male-dominated activity. Women began to enter the workforce as typists, because not enough men were willing to carry out said activity. For many women this occupation presented an opportunity to gain independence and break away from the repressive domestic structures. Typing courses and lucrative typing competitions were held to promote this new occupation. Since the manufacturer Remington was able to provide a trained typist with every typewriter that it sold, the typewriter became a bestseller and women became employees.

Female typists revolutionised office work and office structures. In combination with shorthand and a uniform writing, typing helped to speed up office work and soon women altered social structures at the office. New dress codes were introduced; new codes of conducts and more distinguished manners were cultivated. Women brought sexual tension to the office, speeding up male-dominated office work and making it more colourful and diverse.

While initially women who worked at the office faced discrimination – and were even defamed as pornographic - which destroyed the reputation of many a respectable bourgeois daughters, a few decades later organisations began to raise their status by hiring female secretaries.

Streamlined offices – the root of back pain

Not only were work processes and office spaces streamlined and restructured, but even individual tasks were reduced to the essential; here particularly the desk and chair played an important role.

The engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor and the organisational psychologist Frank Bunker Gilbreth developed methods to reduce movement required at the workplace, acting on the assumption that humans were like machines. They designated spots for each work tool on the desk, providing guidance for sedentary office staff to systematically reach for said objects. Letter chutes, carbon paper and rotors for processing index cards were introduced, to eliminate the need to stand up between office duties. Good accountants were only those who did not mind that their creative impulses were limited to the designated reaching distance.

Sedentary work

Female typists successfully established sedentary work at the office. With the body bent in two right angles, sitting assists many office tasks. Limiting movement leads to increased discipline and allows one to shift attention to internal processes and to focus on organising and thinking. That is the most notable benefit of sitting. However, there is also a flip side: with prolonged sitting humans tend to – while being physically inactive and focusing on specific desk-bound activities – lose physical strength and fitness, become mentally and emotionally rigid, suffer from back pain or a herniated disc, and may even forget how to walk and stand upright properly. Even activities which can be better performed while walking and standing are now carried out in sitting – one example: balance sheet books were often several meters wide. As a result chairs with castors were designed which could be used to slide along the edge of the book without having to stand up.

Physical activity is important

However, soon it became evident that prolonged periods of typing while sitting, such as advocated by the Taylor system, makes people ill. Women were only able to work a few years as typists before suffering from tendosynovitis and muscle tension. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until half a century later that industrial scientists and orthopaedists began taking into account the physical strain of sedentary office activities. Only then it became obvious that humans were not cut out for prolonged periods of sitting without sufficient movement.

Not only is it untrue that limiting movement leads to increased performance, but inactivity even promotes illness. It is not reduced activity but adequately performed physical exercise that helps humans to stay healthy.

Office work – a respected position

With the dawn of industrialisation, the office began to shape human thought, action and perception. The modern office first freed men, and later also women from patriarchal households, opening up new occupations for females beyond household duties. Both sexes worked jointly on projects, which helped to turn office work into an appealing occupation by the end of the 19th century – and into a respected position.


Hajo Eickhoff