Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 36, September 1992
How many people can recall those old offices and similar places where panelling and lining boards prevailed and everything was made of stained or polished wood? Some were reasonably bright and cheery, others dark and forbidding. Invariably a big wall clock encased in wood measured out the hours and in larger concerns, clock-watchers were watched by stern faced senior personages, ministers of the work ethic. Charles Dickens left us vivid images of nineteenth century offices, banks, shops, schools, courtrooms, institutions and other scenes of desk and counter, of string and red wax seals and great ledgers crammed with copybook script.
Feature films and television sagas offer, at times, near flawless re-creations of such places so that those who may never have experienced the vagaries of the quill or steel pen, can at least picture in their minds that bygone era. The daily round for those in the professions, for storekeepers and clerks, office workers and school teachers included keeping the old pens operable - an important task. Consider all those marvellous pen racks and pen trays, the blotters and pen wipers and a whole host of ink bottles and inkstands. Three-well inkstands marked "copying", "red" and "black", complete with a hollow or tray for pens were the pride of any desk or counter. Combination inkstands, pen-holders and letter racks in delicate cast iron would intrigue any modern-day collector. Much thought was given to the problem of ink spillages and so there were unspillable bottles. Heavy stands in glass or metal helped ensure that no disasters occurred.
Fountain pens had been around in principle long before the 1880's but it was in 1884 that American insurance salesman Lewis Edson Waterman devised the standard form of capillary feed which made such pens a popular item in offices. Self-filling pens apparently came just after the turn of the century, and the lever action squeezing a rubber sac was introduced in 1908. Because they could be safely carried on the person, fountain pens were to become superbly decorated and produced in silver and gold with top of the line prices equalling three to four weeks wages. Nibs for both kinds of pens were mostly of steel but some were even of 14 carat gold; their designs were offered as answers to any problems (dropping ink was the main one) and as giving a variety of actions suitable to all hands and writing needs.
The great blotting pads, the rotary action blotters and the fine sand of the olden times all helped in the production of neat and presentable letters and documents. Many of the marvellous old pen flourishes and scrolls survived from this period but such penwork has become a rare skill. Lead pencils for real slates and for "porcelain slates" were used in offices, homes and schools. The lead pencil as we know it has changed very little and even the brands offered in 1905 exist today. Fine stationery was a matter of pride and the range offered was very extensive. Those who can remember post offices in earlier times will recall the wonderful array of pigeon-holes, letter racks, stamp holders, pen stands, mailbag racks, notice-boards, large wooden counters with a wire grilled cubicle for banking and postal orders, and a mixed collection of wooden furniture of all ages, The old Douglas or captain's chair was to be found in such places and in most other plainer offices and stores.
Any place sending out letters, parcels and small packages had a basic complement of string holder, glass stamp-dampenersor damping brushes, and the real touch of the old world, red sealing-wax and a little spirit lamp to melt it. Scales of every description have played their part in every area of commerce and public service. The counter scales for confectioners, provision dealers, grocers, parcels offices and post offices. There were platform counter scales and the large platform scales which sat of the floor and were used for weighing everything from parcels to potatoes. Most impressive were the tall brass counter scales, some with pans and dishes, others with flat china plates for butter, ham and such like. The famed Avery scales were mostly brass with a cast-iron top frame and base.
Most offices had great iron safes and different sorts of cashboxes. Many stores continued to use the simple cash drawer with the bell attachment and combination locking system. There were great registers, all nickel-plated brass and richly decorated with ornate cast panels. Then we must remember the rotary date cases, an essential item in any office. The typewriter first appeared in its present form around 1875, and became common in offices from the 1890's. Women were employed in offices in more significant numbers with each passing decade from 1900, and advertisements in the early 1920's called for more women to take a training course at business colleges. The telephone, typewriter and the Edison Dictaphone were important elements in an emerging employment pattern; such work became almost entirely a female preserve. Male clerks of the 1920's and 30's, having lost their traditional job of laboriously handwriting and copying letters and taking notes, continued to do battle with endless pages of figures and to keep the great ledgers.
We should also remember that this was still the era of the five and a half day week even for offices and professional chambers. Young grocers' boys were expected to turn up for work at 7.00 am and have the delivery horse all groomed and harnessed ready for an early start, rain, hail or shine. The job of female shop assistant was, from Edwardian times, most sought after even though the hours were long and the pay very low. One would suppose that such jobs were at least superior to the sweatshop conditionsinfactories.
When we think of all the fascinating relics from such workplaces, we would do well to remember the conditions under which people toiled. Nostalgia is a state of mind to be tempered at all times with a healthy dash of realism.