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Office Technology: Then and Now

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 17th, 2015

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.

On the 18th of December, 1930, a photographer from the studio of Gravely and Moore appeared at the offices of the West Virginia Department of Health in Charleston, West Virginia to document their workplace.  The resulting photos, some of which are presented here, can be viewed and understood in any number of ways.  For this blog, however, we’ll chose to view them through the lens of technology, thereby throwing into relief the advantages of the modern office that we all enjoy today.  


Women at typewriters

The typewriter.  Replaced by the desktop computer.


Introduced into offices in the 1870s, the typewriter was an office workhorse that had a life of about one century in the workplace.  Distinct disadvantages of this machine include the difficulty of making more than one copy, and the always unsatisfactory methods of correcting text in ink once it’s been struck onto the page.


Woman and mimeograph

The rotary mimeograph.  Replaced by the photocopier and laser printer.


Like the typewriter, the mimeograph was introduced into the office in the late 19th century.  The rotary version was a later development.  This machine solved the problem of making multiple copies from typescript pages through stencil technology — a stencil could be created by a typewriter, which could then be attached to the mimeograph to produce a run of copies.



Paper.  Lots and lots of paper.  Replaced by electronic databases.


This room is apparently a vault within the Department of Health, and the range of shelves that the man in the picture is facing contain bound birth certificates, mainly from the 1920s.  The comparative advantages of digital technology indirectly evidenced by this image are obvious to modern viewers!


These photographs remind us of how improving technology has delivered practical benefits to the worklife of modern office workers.  For those interested in additional information on the topic of office technology, see the Early Office Museum, a wonderful collection of facts and images pertaining to this overlooked subject.

Photographs from the Gravely and Moore collection at the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

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