I found a few instances where our women relatives were listed in the early 20th century census as ‘Stenographers.’ I had an idea that this was some type of administrative, secretarial work but decided to do some more digging. Today a stenographer is almost exclusively employed in courts, but when the typewriter was first invented stenographers were used in almost all corporate office, dictating meetings, calls etc. In our family tree – I found ‘Stenographer’ show up as an occupation in the 1920s and 1930s census for our immigrant ancestors living in Brooklyn.
The Miriam Webster Dictionary defines stenography ‘as a form of shorthand typing done on a special machine which makes it possible to produce simultaneously a verbatim transcript, for instance in courts.’ Stenographers basically record what is being spoken through shorthand using a machine called a stenotype or typewriter.
Stenography as an office based employment option for our women relatives became available with the rise of the corporate office in the city during the early 20s and 30s. It’s seemed to mainly have been an option for single girls in the 1920s while the majority of married women still stayed at home working as a mother or homemaker. As corporate offices increased, the need for dictation and data collection and storage became increasingly important. Vintage photos show entire floors in office buildings with rows of desks filled ladies listening to various dictations and typing away. Women also joined the offices in the 20s as clerks, filing assistants and secretaries. While working as a stenographer seems to have been a cleaner and safer option then the garment factories, the pay remained low and they experienced lower status then men including inequality of pay. In 1927 a report by the Industrial Conference Report showed that the weekly wage of a man was $29.35 compared to $17.36 for women (Miller). In addition, in the 1920s there weren’t many opportunities for women to be promoted past administrative positions.
Stenographers in Brooklyn, 1925 Image Source
According to old newspaper ads that advertise for Stenographer positions in NYC it appears you needed some office experience. Our relatives who worked as Stenographers must have received a certification and/or taken courses in basic secretarial skills, including typing. I found a couple of places where our relatives may have gained their skills to find a job in Stenography in 1930s Brooklyn. Our Jewish relatives may have taken classes at the Young Women’s Hebrew Association on 1578 Lexington Ave. The YWHA was opened from 1888 for the purpose of immigrant education and had opportunities for Jewish girls and women to take classes in English, embroidery, typing, stenography, book keeping and Hebrew. There was also the Hebrew Technical School for Girls on 15th and 2nd Avenue that offered various vocational skills courses including dressmaking, typing, bookkeeping, hand sewing, millinery, embroidery and stenography. In addition, there were a few business colleges open in Manhattan were women went to school to become stenographers, secretaries, and/or teachers.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
24 May 1925, Sun • Page 49
Also interesting to help think about our relatives in this context is how the working girl as a Stenographer seemed to be a cultural icon in the 1920s. The first comic strips about a working woman featured Stenographers – including ‘Somebody’s Stenog’ (1918-1941), ‘Winnie Winkle’ (1920-1996) and ‘Tillie the Toiler’ (1921-1959).
Winnie the Winkle 1930
Miller, Nathan, New World Coming: The 1920s And The Making Of Modern America. Da Capo Press, Apr 28, 2009.
Other Fun Reads I found while thinking about our Early Working Women relatives: