When digging through the dark recesses of the office supply cabinet, today’s average office worker might find a 5¼” floppy disk and consider it a relic of the Dark Ages. They’ve probably also never seen a canister-style ashtray in the corridor, or a pegboard bookkeeping system. Here are some other supplies and equipment that are quickly becoming museum pieces.
1. Telephone Switchboard
It may be hard to conceive of today, but once upon a time, even the largest corporations (like General Motors or IBM) had one all-encompassing telephone number. Employees and departments had extension numbers, and all incoming calls were answered by the operator at the main number and then routed accordingly. Most callers didn’t know their party’s extension and would simply ask for the person by name, but no matter how vague (or rude) the request, they were connected promptly and accurately. It required some serious training to work the switchboard; it wasn’t as if anyone could just sit down and start connecting calls. So switchboard operators—who also doubled as receptionists in between calls—were integral to keeping an office running.
2. Telex Machines
Back before the fax machine was invented, and when long-distance telephone calls were prohibitively expensive, a lot of business communication was handled via Telex. Sometimes colloquially referred to as a “teletype,” the operator typed out a message offline which was punched into a paper tape. Then the tape was inserted into a “reader” and the operator dialed the recipient’s Telex number—which, unlike today’s fax numbers, had only six digits—and then transmitted the message at a top speed of 66 words per minute. It was also possible to “talk” live in real time between two terminals; in fact, instead of an @ sign on the numeral “2” key, there was a BELL that rang on both ends with every tap that was used to call attention to the remote terminal in case there was no operator standing by. Western Union discontinued their Telex service in 1987 to concentrate on their new service, Easylink, some sort of developing technology called electronic mail.
Even after the Dictaphone was invented, a lot of businessmen (executives were almost exclusively male at the time) preferred to dictate their correspondence to a secretary or stenographer, who sat beside his desk with a steno pad and duly took down his every word in shorthand. If he lost his train of thought, it was far more convenient to say “read that last sentence back to me” than to rewind a tape and try to find the exact sentence in question. A shorthand speed of 60 words per minute used to be the minimum that was acceptable for a secretarial position; 80 wpm was more the average, while Executive and Legal Secretaries were expected to accurately take dictation at 100 to 120 wpm. Gregg shorthand—a phonetic system invented in 1888 by John Robert Gregg—used to be commonly offered as a class in high schools across the U.S., but today the strokes are as mysterious as hieroglyphics to most young people.
Some offices may have an old electric typewriter stashed away on a rolling cart tucked away in a cubby someplace, where it is occasionally rolled out and dusted off when a multi-part form needs to be filled out, but the majority of today’s cube-dwellers have never had to type a letter and center it vertically simply by eyeballing it. And they certainly don’t have the pinky finger strength of those of us who were trained in proper keyboard fingering on a manual machine. Let’s not forget the “futuristic” and “convenient” IBM Executive model, which featured proportionate spacing (that is, if you needed to backspace to correct a letter, you had to go back five spaces for a W and two for an I). The Executive allowed the user to easily right-justify text to give the document the look of a newspaper column: All the typist had to do was type the entire page once on a paper with a pencil line drawn down the right side of the paper, and then remove it and mark where spaces between words needed to be added or subtracted in order to make an even column. Once the page was duly annotated, all the typist needed to do was type the whole thing over again. Piece of cake, no?
5. Carbon Paper
You know that “cc” box in your email form? That stands for “carbon copy,” and originally meant a copy of a document that had been rendered by carbon paper. (It was standard procedure to list the recipients of a particular document at the bottom with a “cc:” note so that everyone knew who all had received the letter or memo.)
Photocopiers (such as a Xerox machine) didn’t really become commonplace in the average workplace until the 1970s, and even then the cost of the machine plus toner and other parts meant that they weren’t used as cavalierly as they would be later. So office workers made multiple copies of a particular document using carbon paper; boxes of the stuff were once stocked as high as printer paper is today. Typists loaded a sheet of carbon paper and some onion skins (see below) into a typewriter; the lever on the left side of the machine, marked “A” through “E”, controlled the striking force of the keys, depending upon how many carbon copies the operator was making. Imagine the discouraging words that were uttered when occasionally, after painstakingly typing a long letter with five carbons, the typist discovered that she had accidentally inserted one of the carbons backwards.
6. Onion Skin
Onion skin is a very thin, lightweight, translucent paper with a cockled finish for easy erasing. It was used with the above-mentioned carbon paper to make duplicate copies when typing (or handwriting) a document. Because it was so light, it was ideal for sending airmail correspondence—four pages of onion skin weighed about the same as one sheet of regular bond.
7. Airmail Envelopes
When it absolutely, positively had to be there faster than regular surface mail in the pre-fax days, folks sent their documents via airmail. The postage rate for airmail was higher than regular postage and was based on weight, so by design the envelopes were made of thinner paper than a traditional envelope. They were also clearly marked with a red, white, and blue border so they stood out during the sorting process at the various post offices. The United States Post Office discontinued domestic airmail as a separate service in 1975 and simply shipped all mail by plane, and international airmail rates were likewise ditched in 1995.
The earliest facsimile machines were generically referred to as “telecopiers” and bore little resemblance to the modern fax machine (which is itself starting to go the dinosaur route). It had a handset coupler, but no built-in telephone; it had to be placed near a traditional telephone with a dedicated line. A human had to be on hand to answer the phone when it rang; the caller on the other end would tell them how many pages they would be transmitting. The human then had to manually insert one page of thermal paper underneath the metal lip on a cylinder inside the machine, set the transmission speed for either four or six minutes, and then slip the phone handset into the coupler, which triggered the sending process. When the page was done, the phone was removed temporarily and a new blank page inserted. It was slow, cumbersome and smelly (the image was more or less burned onto the page), but for the time it was pretty revolutionary to be able to send drawings and photos through the telephone lines.
9. Metal Telephone Flip Index
What a handy way to keep all your important telephone numbers at your fingertips. You simply slid the lever on the right to the desired letter of the alphabet, pressed the release lever at the bottom, and the index popped open to the correct page. And they were fun to idly play with while you were chatting on the phone.
In between the typewriter eraser and the IBM Self-Correcting Selectric typewriter, the go-to method of correcting typos was a product called Ko-Rec-Type. They were individual opaquing films, about the size of a Band-Aid, that the typist held in place over the incorrect letter and then “whited” it out by re-typing. It was like Liquid Paper on a small strip, only you didn’t have to wait for it to dry.
11. Adding Machine
“Crunching” numbers was an actual sound that used to reverberate around the accounting department. Adding machines were large mechanical devices with 72 keys that added and subtracted (usually in terms of dollars and cents) only. Each key stayed depressed until the operator pulled the crank-arm.