On Typewriters, Immigration and Gender

The concept of a typewriter dates back at least to 1714, when Englishman Henry Mill filed a vaguely-worded patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.” – A Brief History of Typewriters

So, right now we are looking at immigration, and the development of the bureaucracy that has grown up around immigration. And the introduction of the typewriter. In Cleveland, at least at the Court of Common Pleas (where a Declaration of Intention to apply for citizenship was filed), the typewriter was introduced in 1925.  This fascinating blog gives a pretty good sense of what machines were available, with lush photos of Remingtons, British Bar-Locks, Smiths, and Blicks.

They were using the very same keyboard and glyphs that we use today on our digital monsters. Laid out almost identically.

The transition from hand scribing (a “profession” comprised almost exclusively of men) to machine writing (a “means of employment” for women), included early accomodation to existing supplies. Large legal documents needed to be inserted into the machines, so large carriages were created:


1924-25 Underwood Standard Wide Carriage, photo by Todd Wilt


Shortly after, forms were changed to fit the machines. Interesting, though, that paper and printing were still at such a premium that all forms were used until they were filled, no matter the size. I’m not sure when wholesale paper waste became common – it certainly was by the 1980s. Anyway, it seems at this time, they adjusted a few machines in order to complete all of the pre-printed forms, rather than dump the old paper.


Underwood Typewriter, c 1925, Photo, the Australian Typewriter Museum, Canberra

Gender Changes In The Office, Late 19th Century

The history of the gender shift in offices is fairly well documented, but rarely commented upon. The job of “secretary” – those involved in the daily correspondence and organization of daily activities of people in power – was held solely by men, dating back to the Renaissance. Possibly earlier. As functions and jobs expanded, the title of “secretary” began taking on it’s own power – we see this held over with such state titles as “Secretary of State”, “Secretary of Labor”, and so on.

The field was almost exclusively male, even as late as the 1870s and ’80’s. The first schools, dedicated to teaching skills for “aids to professional men” (shorthand, calligraphy, diary planning, etc) were all set up as exclusively male. But, in the ’80’s, typewriters were appearing in more and more offices in the industrialized world. By the 1920’s, the field was dominated by women, all of them using typewriters. The remaining calligraphers and scribes, all tended to be men.

One of the issues here has to do with education. Calligraphy takes long and exacting training. The typewriter took training, but it was shorter, and qualifications were generally much easier to achieve (while there was no formal guild of calligraphers, it took a lot of skill and dedication to make it in the trade. Once typewriters became part of the training in secretarial schools, passing the courses took a fraction of the time), and there is some indication of the same grumbling about loss of skills we saw when the calculator replaced the slide rule.

As business correspondence became separated from personal correspondence in the 1880s—1900 (even today, personal letters are written by hand. Business letters are on a keyboard), the trade of writing became industrialized and devalued. And it became women’s work.


I’m also looking to see if I can find literacy rates broken down by gender. When the trade of secretary was being created in the Renaissance, male literacy rates were higher than female in all classes but the nobility. Even among the nobility, education was only stressed for females headed of the highest ranks (future queens,duchesses, etc). As you move down the class structure, literacy declined for both genders, and plummeted for women.

The enlightenment brought the idea of universal education (for men) to the West. It brought the idea, but in actuality, literacy remained low among working class and rural populations until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Getting a handle on actual literacy rates is tough, though. We don’t have a clear definition of what the term “literacy” means. People who can read only a few simple words are considered “literate” in some circumstances. Still, working with a somewhat tighter definition of functional literacy (the ability to read popular periodicals), a fascinating article was published, in of all places, The Magazinist. In Part One, they have a really well researched section on population and literacy in the late 19th century. They point out that “men were more likely to be literate than women, although the gap diminished as the century progressed (Stevens)”.

Literacy is deeply intertwined in one’s ability to do office work.

It has also been used as a club to keep people down.

So-called literacy tests were used throughout the post-Civil War south in order to stop the black population from voting. Literacy tests were also employed to see if candidates were worthy of citizenship in the burgeoning nation, and were usually used to keep people from being able to become citizens.

Immigration Regulation and Women

Shortly after the new constitution was adopted in 1787, the new congress passed the first immigration legislation, the Naturalization Act of 1790. The law was limited to ” “free white persons of good moral character”. The law excluded all blacks (free as well as slaves), Asians, Native Americans, indentured servants and children of men who had not resided in the new country. Children born to American males living abroad were automatically considered to be citizens.

After the 1855 Passenger Act, a woman could not file for citizenship seperately from her husband. She shared the same citizenship as her husband. So if she married a native born or naturalized American, she became a citizen. However if both of them were immigrants and her husband did not seek out citizenship then she could not file in the court for citizenship. Or, if she did not have a husband, she could not apply on her own. In 1907, congress passed legislation that made marriage the sole determinant of a woman’s citizenship. Under this legislation,  U.S.-born citizen women could now lose their citizenship by any marriage to any alien man. She could only regain it if the man petitioned for, and was granted, citizenship.

Women could not file independently for citizenship until the 1922 Cable Act (coming only two years after the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote and stand for office).

Literacy, Typewriters, and the Emancipation of Women


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