Morning rush, 1896. The Third Avenue elevated train clatters into 23rd Street. A young woman trudges down the iron stairs, plucks her skirts just clear of the sidewalk, and joins the torrent of men in dark suits and women in white blouses converging on Madison Square. It’s taken a lot of convincing to get to this first day of work. Her parents know the neighborhood as a den of the disreputable rich, where bright new mansions are interspersed with the concert saloons that the Reverend Parkhurst is so bent on expunging. A few blocks up is Madison Square Garden, with its boxers and opera singers. (“Tonight and Friday evening will be Wagner nights,” the Times warned. “Every night there will be beer.”) And an office is no place for a girl either. Her father should know, having spent decades hunched over an oak desk in a shipping company’s lightless front room along with a dozen other sallow men.
But everything is different now. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company built itself an 11-story palazzo at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 23rd Street, and it’s practically a billboard for respectability. Men—clerks, accountants, executives, cashiers—enter through one portal. An even larger group of typists, stenographers, and switchboard operators flows through another: “Metropolitan Belles,” the company calls its young unmarried female employees, with their brisk step and pinned-up hair. There’s no risk of their bumping into a man, the young woman has assured her mother, because elevators, hallways, and lunchrooms are segregated with monastic strictness. She won’t mention the roof terrace, where the sexes mingle during breaks.
New York City and the office transformed each other at the end of the 19th century so quickly and profoundly that it makes the digital age seem sluggish. Until then, New York’s world of steel pen-pushers still resembled the London law office in Dickens’s 1853 novel Bleak House, where the narrator looks around “at the shabby, dusty tables, and at the piles of writings, and at a bookcase full of the most inexpressive-looking books that ever had anything to say for themselves.” Clerks, those creatures of the gloom who earned little, each day affixing new white collars to graying shirts, mystified most Americans, who had a hard time recognizing what they did as work. “What wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be … if suddenly they could all be stript naked!” Walt Whitman wrote. A bodybuilding manual from 1866 promised that scrawny clerks and pudgy merchants didn’t have to stay that way: “Note in the crowded thoroughfare of Broadway now and then an occasional passer-by, with well-knit and shapely form, firm and elastic step, broad-chested and full-blooded”—an early gym rat.
Then came a cascade of technological innovations and social changes that swept away all the mustiness and pretensions. Corporations expanded their reach across the continent and the oceans, creating vast markets and equally vast quantities of paperwork. The flow of numbers, contracts, and correspondence demanded a new workforce, which in turn required big spaces and reliable lighting. Steel-frame buildings swelled along with capitalism’s ambitions, and elevators sped workers to their desks, now illuminated by vast windows and, eventually, fluorescent bulbs. Before too long, air-conditioning systems kept the white-collar armies comfortable and alert in every season, and office work was broken down into tiny tasks that could be executed at high speed, day in, day out. Productivity was king. By 1914, 20,000 people were trooping in and out of Met Life every day, popping 5,000 internal messages through its network of pneumatic tubes. It was an information factory on a colossal scale.
THE STATUS OFFICE: An incomplete history.
1906: Office as throne room.
J.P. Morgan received visitors in his opulent study. Here, during the Panic of 1907, he arranged—and to a large extent bankrolled—a bailout of the U.S. economy.
1910: Office as center for social change.
During its early years, the NAACP was headquartered in New York, as were the editorial offices of its magazine, ‘The Crisis.’
1988: Office as tasteful design museum.
SBK Entertainment was kitted out by Gwathmey Siegel with look-we-have-class Frank Lloyd Wright furniture and a Wiener Werkstätte grid wall.
1994: Office as postmodern idea riot.
Gaetano Pesce’s workspace for ChiatDay had a resin floor in which stars and puppies were “drawn” by pouring, with computers in rolling carrels for flexibility.
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