Critical Essay—Typewriters Typing Typists

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Sarah K. Jackson, Louisiana State University




Typewriters Typing Typists explores the multiple ways visual and material artifacts perform. Specifically, it demonstrates how visual images, a 1906 illustrated Fox Typewriters advertisement of a Gibson Girl type and a photograph from the 1920s of a flapper type, each posed with a typewriter, can be perceived and analyzed as performance events that tell us something about the cultures that produced and transmitted them and also about our current culture and how we perceive events we recall. The essay focuses on these specific images of working women because they bookend a period of time in which typewriters emerged to the fore as an efficient tool of reproduction in the business world. Additionally, each woman is rendered in terms of a popular female type of its period. The essay undertakes a critical genealogy as conceptualized by Foucault, aiming to discover how the images perform by focusing on key elements of each imagethe typewriting machine and the woman as typewriter in each image. The essay tracks and describes different perspectives on the relationship between the typist and her typewriter, woman and machine. Finally, the essay applies the stories and issues collected to an investigation of each image, adding to the perspective mix the basic “laws of theatricality” as conceptualized by theatre practioner Vsevolod Meyerhold to understand and articulate how the images perform. That is, the laws help determine what makes for “performance” in this case. They offer a vocabulary for analyzing the images as performance events and, especially, for discussing the double-sided complexities that emerge in those events.

Drawing on Meyerhold allows me to explore the specific ways in which the images perform with a difference and even subversively. Further, it shows us how practical performance methods contain conceptual-theoretical discourses that help us discuss how and why people perform.


[The typist] sits erect in a comfortable position, with her feet flat on the floor and her arms relaxed. Her typewriter table and her chair are of such heights that her arms slope off the keyboard. Her elbows are in, her wrists are rather low; her fingers are curved and close to the “home” keys. She strokes the keys firmly, using finger action entirely.  Her arms and wrists are motionless. Her eyes are on the copy. She doesn’t look for line endings; she waits until the ping of the bell tells her the right-hand margin is near. She returns to the next line as soon as possible after the bell has sounded for the next round, and she throws the carriage, a hefty sock, holding the fingers of the left hand almost flat and close together, striking the carriage-return lever with the second joint of the index finger. (Bruce Bliven 140; emphasis in original)



In his book, The Wonderful Writing Machine, Bruce Bliven cites a description of a typist from an early typing manual. The manual is describing the ideal typing situation. For the typist, typing is a performance that has been rehearsed and instilled in her body until perfected. She has learned how to type, rehearsed the skill until ridding it of excess and inefficiencies, and now types with fluid and efficient motions. Through repetition of physical and psychological training the typist learns how to perform her role. The discipline of typewriting is inscribed in her body. She rehearses, improves, and fixes her habits. In other words, she performs “the done” (Diamond). As she types in the moment the act of typing represents discursive categories, values, conventions, and practices that influence how she interprets typing. Patrake explains, “As we are in the doing, then, there is the pressure of the thing done. The doing is not knowable without the thing done, and the thing done is all the discursive conventions that allow us to think through a doing” (Patrake, 1999, p. 6). With each swing of the lever to inscribe the page she the typist also inscribes herself. The identity of the typist is typed and set with each repetition of movement. Rather than a preexisting locus of identity or agency, Judith Butler asserted that identity “is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler, 1988 p. 154). Rather than showing a natural, preexisting identity, this stylized repetition of acts constitutes the very concept of identity. Judith Butler tells us that as stylized repetition of acts (typing) not only disciplines the body, but becomes, “at once a cultural convention, value, and signifier that is inscribed on the body-performed through the body-to mark identities” (Hamera 51). Through the repetition of learning to type women’s bodies are marked as efficient, expendable, and mechanized. Through the reiteration of the act of typing the identity of typist is formed and stabilized through the repetition. The typewriter types the typist as the typist types the typewriter. Butler helps us to understand that typewriter identity, is a constructed role repetitively performed. Through this repetition the woman is marked as a typist and the machine is marked as a feminine object.

Importantly, however, both Butler leaves room for alternative and even subversive performance of identity. She explains, “Just as a script may be enacted in various ways, and just as the play requires both text and interpretation, so the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives” (Butler, 1988, p. 161). Although typists perform their identity through the repetition of typing they are not mindless machines typing away. They have the ability to perform differently and with a difference.

In this essay I explore the multiple ways visual and material artifacts perform. Specifically, I demonstrate how visual images, a 1906 illustrated Fox Typewriters advertisement of a Gibson Girl type and a photograph from the 1920s of a flapper type, each posed with a typewriter, can be perceived and analyzed as performance events that tell us something about the cultures that produced and transmitted them and also about our current culture and how we perceive events we recall.1 I focus on these specific images of working women because they bookend a period of time in which typewriters emerged to the fore as an efficient tool of reproduction in the business world. Additionally, each woman is rendered in terms of a popular female type of its period. I undertake a critical genealogy as conceptualized by Foucault, aiming to discover how the images perform.2 To do so, I focus on key elements in each imagethe typewriting machine and the woman as typewriter in each image. I track and describe different perspectives on the relationship between the typist and her typewriter, woman and machine. Finally, I apply the stories and issues I’ve collected to an investigation of each image, adding to the perspective mix the basic “laws of theatricality” as conceptualized by theatre practioner, Vsevolod Meyerhold. Although Meyerhold developed and experimented with his laws within the same time period that concerns me, I do not intend to draw direct correspondences between the images and Meyerhold’s application of the laws. Rather, I find the helpful to understanding and articulating how the images perform. That is, the laws will determine what makes for “performance” in this case. They offer a vocabulary for analyzing the images as performance events and, especially, for discussing the double-sided complexities that emerge in those events. Drawing on Meyerhold allows me to explore the specific ways in which I see the images performing with a difference and even subversively (Butler). Further, it shows us how practical performance methods contain conceptual-theoretical discourses that help us discuss how and why people perform.

Meyerhold was influenced by technological advancement and industrialization occurring on a global level. What makes his law’s so interesting and helpful to my analysis is that whereas most theories of mechanization create docile, mechanized bodies that reinforced traditional values about gender, labor, and power, Meyerhold’s laws suggests a double-side to mechanized bodies.

Meyerhold’s method of stylization contains and informs the other laws. In order to stylize a text, period, phenomenon, or artwork, it would appear one should identify the conventions of the source style, distil them to an essence (a synthesized expression), and then expand on the essence in various ways so as to reveal the “hidden features” or meanings embedded in the source. A character or human movement is distilled to a few deemed essentials, which then are exaggerated. The distillation economizes and sharpens expression while the exaggeration (in scale but also as a result of the shifting network of signs) extends it, allowing for multiple and often contradictory meanings to emerge.

Meyerhold developed biomechanics as the Russian people were concerned with the industrial and scientific reconstruction of the Soviet Union so as to catch up with the progress of other industrialized nations. Biomechanics is a series of exercises aimed at improving the performer’s physical technique and expressivity. Biomechanics distills movement to its fundaments, which includes a tri-part rhythm, and once learned, the fundaments can be applied (improvised) to the situations the actor encounters on stage. Further, the performers learn and enact principles of contrast and opposition, both of which are central to the idea of the double-life of theatre.

One way he featured the double-life was by means of mask. Mask refers to all external components of a character including costume, movement, gesture, facial expression, and actual face masks. A mask allows the user to reveal certain parts of his or her character while concealing others. They allow an actor to stylize a character to an essence and then, through exaggeration or extension, alter or counter the essencefor instance, by revealing the other side, the backside of the mask.

Meyerhold’s use of stylization and mask often results in the grotesque, which mixes opposites and celebrates incongruities so as to highlight and investigate the same in everyday life.

Clearly, the double-life of theatre is tricky and a brief mention of tricksters positions this idea in an active agent. Generally, tricksters are culturally produced and bound agents that deliberately and tactically get around the constraints of social norms and practices by using but altering the same. Although tricksters are often employed by disempowered groups, they also can work for the privileged and empowered. Because their destabilization of norms occurs through humor, tricksters often evade authorities who might be upset by their trickery if they thought it was serious.

I call on Meyerhold’s laws of theatricality to analyze how the images stylize content and form: distill phenomena such as the typewriter and the female figure to essences, which then are extended and exaggerated through their design and juxtaposition with other elements. Put another way, I am interested in if and how the images leak the excess they attempt to contain by means of the distillation, and of what that excess consists. 


The Typing Machine


The invention of the typewriter and the mass production of it parallels industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization of labor in the U.S.; resulting class, race, ethnicity, and gender tensions; the women’s suffragist movement; and the part mass media played in defining women’s roles by circulating images of women in the workplace and other contexts. The race to invent a typing machine so as to replace handwritten documents and make dictation more efficient was inspired by changes in western life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The typewriter is emblematic of the industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization of social life in the U.S. and elsewhere during this period. In Meyerhold’s terms, we might understand the typewriter as a stylized objectthe distillation of the period to a style that holds trajectories of excess—that effects a typewriter style of performance.

The invention of the typewriter was driven by a variety of different reasons such as wanting to print with moveable type, creating automata, and producing prosthetic writing devices for the blind and deaf. Further, each invention resulted in different qualities, many of which were applied to the first successfully mass-produced typewriter. Typewriter after typewriter after typewriter was invented, assembled by ambitious hands and distributed to eager hands ready to trust a machine to help the work of the human hand. One by one, each typewriter became outdated and was replaced by a new and more efficient model. From the early eighteenth through the late nineteenth centuries, the typewriter was invented at least fifty-two times by as many as 112 inventors (Werhler-Henry). Each invention resulted in different qualities, many of which were applied to the first successfully mass-produced typewriter, the Remington No. 1, invented by Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Glidden in 1873. The machine was a success in many ways. For one, it enabled the transition from handwritten to typewritten documents, making business and other correspondence more efficient. The typewriter became a machine to mechanize individual handwriting. By standardizing the letters via typeset, the typewriter rid individual expression in handwriting. Handwritten correspondence that allowed for mistakes and individual differences was replaced by an inscribing machine that type-wrote with uniformity, efficiency, and reproducibility. Derrida tells us that the typewriter democratized and desacralized handwriting but at the same time resacralized and refetished handwriting (12). The machine was known for transcribing whereas handwriting was known for composing. This rescralization and refetishization placed value (intelligence) in writing by hand and devalued mechanical (thoughtless) typewriting.

The transition from handwriting to mechanized typing created efficient, reproducible correspondence, which was attractive to businesses and offices. Women’s emergence into the nineteenth century male dominated business world was enabled by the successful mass-production of the typewriter. As the typewriter became a permanent fixture in offices, so too did typewritersthe word referring to both the machine and the female typist in the early years. While the machine is often credited with liberating women from the confines of the home, it also is singled out as limiting women’s options in the business world. Carolyn Marvin explains that new media force existing groups to negotiate power, authority, and representation. However, old ways of communicating are projected onto new technologies, which often reinforce pre-existing relationships of power and authority between different groups. (Marvin 5). Though the typewriter created new positions for women in the work force, the position of typewriter carried with it social preconceptions of women and labor.

As companies manufactured typewriters they also produced advertisements to sell their new products. Often ads took the form of mass-produced trade cards featuring the machine alongside female operator. When I look at the typewriter advertisement, I can’t help but wonder for whom it was made. I suspect advertisements were pitched to the businessmen who purchased the machines as well as to the women who used them. Advertisements that associated the typewriter with women’s work targeted potential typists (women) by presenting a female in the workplace as well as business owners and managers (men) by making the idea of women working (typing) less threatening to men by feminizing the machine and de-emphasizing the work of typing. The strategy feminized, naturalized, and trivialized the typewriter and act of typewriting. Perceived as a machine that copies, the typewriter is barred from jobs that (again, as perceived) require thought. Other, more tantalizing types of imagery of women and typewriters circulated as a form of entertainment. Typewriter erotica featured nudes or scantily clad women in suggestive poses with their typewriters. Typewriters, both women and machine became desirable so much so that both women and machine became fetishized.


Types of Mechanization


As industrialization spread across the U.S. in the 1800s, farm machines eased the number of hands required to farm the land, and many rural folks migrated to urban centers to compete for factory work with newly arrived immigrants. Rather than highly skilled individual producers, once rural and also urban individuals found themselves in assembly lines performing a single unskilled action in a line of individuals performing similar unskilled actions—all estranged from the final product and profit at the end of the line. In most cases, blue-collar industry jobs entailed the use of machines so as increase efficiency and productivity. Since humans used and interacted with the machines, it followed that their bodies needed to be trained so as to increase product efficiency and output too.

In 1911, in order to (re)train bodies as and to work with machines, Frank Gilbreth developed what came to be known as motion studies that cut eighteen movements of a workers body down to four and a half, making the task more efficient overall.

A similar study of the body was undertaken by inventor Frederick Winslow Taylor who directed his efforts toward the scientific management of bodies so as to augment the product output and profit of factory production lines. By means of his studies, Taylor discovered that workers strained their muscles unnecessarily and were awkward, excessive, and inefficient in their movements (Gordon 88). To address the problems, Taylor developed work cycles, which were sequences of movements with pauses that allowed workers to produce the greatest work output with the least amount of strain. Efficiency of movement was realized through the segmentation of motions, their precise repetition, regulated (tri-part) rhythms, and the eradication of excess motion. Attributed to Ivan Pavlov and popular in both the U.S. and Russia in the early twentieth century, reflexology is “a theory of the mind based on the premise that we can only understand what we can objectively measure, that is, physical processes, not subjective moods” (Pitches 71; emphasis in original). Pavlov’s theory was based on his testing stimuli and response phenomena in dogs to start and then humans. His experiments led to his conclusion that “animals [including humans] are, in effect, rather like machines: we don’t act, we react, in response to external stimuli” (Pitches 72; emphasis in original).

Theories of bodily discipline and mechanization were not limited to factory and office work.3 Making bodies technically disciplined was occurring on all cultural levels. Meyerhold developed biomechanic etudes by drawing on Taylorism and Reflexology. He observed the similarities between Taylor’s sequences of movement and rest and the tri-part rhythm of action. Each distinct move of the etude consists of and is executed in terms of a tri-part rhythm of action. The first part (Otkaz) is an action of preparation, often a slight movement that opposes and thereby propels the second part (Posil), which is the realization of the action, after which occurs the third part (Tochka), a moment of pause and punctuation or a transitional movement from one action to the next. By featuring the tri-part rhythm in physical training, Meyerhold requires his performers to deconstruct the parts and movements of the body, study and perfect them, and then put them back together againnot unlike the process of fixing and fine-tuning a machine. The rhythmic training results in precise, fluid, and efficient movement. However, rather than creating a docile body, biomechanics was influenced by the popular tradition and forms of Commedia dell’arte, which allowed for improvisation and disruption of the mechanized body.


The Typing Body

Ridding the body of excess was extended to the operation of machines in the workplace, which eventually changed the practices, spatial layout, and demographics of the office. The act of typing is a skill that requires rigorous discipline in order to learn. Today we are so accustomed to typing that we forget that when typewriters were introduced to the public, the action of typing was an unfamiliar skill and people had to be taught how to do it accurately and efficiently. Typewriting books, lessons, and classes were common. Many typewriter manufacturers trained women to type. When a business bought the company’s typewriter, the company sent along a woman to operate the machine. Discipline was accomplished through repetition. Foucault explains that the impetus to repeat is compelled by the reward and punishment system of panoptic disciplinei.e., the idea that we act as if we are being scrutinized constantly by an authoritative eye-I who has the power to reward us, in this case for learning correctly. At first the disciplinary apparatus is evident, a parent or teacher surveying, correcting, and praising the student for staying on task. Eventually, after intense repetition of the task, the student internalizes the surveillance, makes it her own or becomes subject to it. As a result, she monitors herself and, as pertinent, others too. The typewriter internalizes the disciplinary mechanism, self-surveying her labor in light of the unseen but all seeing punishment and reward system, which is epitomized by the machine she types on. As she types, the machine records and (before her very eyes) shows her, her every success and failure. In a sense, the machine makes her internalization of surveillance material, visible, binding the writer of type to the machine that types the typewriter.

Prior to the invention of the typewriter, clerical positions were traditionally held by men. Serving as an entry point to the business, men entered as clerks or bookkeepers with the potential of advancement. With the introduction of the typewriter into offices, the operation of offices changed. Pens and ledgerbooks were replaced by machines that dramatically sped up the output of work. Typewriters and people who knew how to operate them were in high demand across the U.S. and elsewhere. Clerical work was the fastest growing non-agricultural occupation from 1870-1930. The mass-produced typewriter created more opportunities for women in business, placing them in direct competition with men for office jobs. Clerical workers in the office began to function less like apprenticeships and more like factories. Value was placed on increasing work output and efficiency. Rotella explains, “The overall effect of these technological advances was to lower the unit cost of producing clerical output of a given quality, thereby increasing supply of such output. Mechanized, routinized clerical work allowed cheaper labor to be substituted for the more expensive time of managers who in the past had to write letters and other paperwork in longhand” (70). The layout of the office was also taylorized for maximum efficiency by ordering workers in a line in an open space. The organization allowed for the boss, who had a private office, to surveille work and to limit interaction with others in the workspace. The distance between all of the components (the table, chair, typewriter, and typist) became Taylorized—scientifically configured in order to get the best, most efficient results. Taylorization of typewriting extended to the furniture the typist used, which came to be known as patent furniture.4 The boss is helping himself by increasing the quality of work and decreasing the amount of time it takes to complete the work. Because of the increase of quality and efficiency of work, the secretary becomes more valuable to her boss. The object and woman are conflated here, both objectified as products one can consume. By 1930, more than half of all clerical workers were women. Also during this period, birth rates dropped significantly, and women, both married and single, entered the workplace in increasing numbers (Rotella 17). Typically, middle-class, white women (born in the U.S. or immigrants) who could speak English and afford short training courses took jobs in offices. Between 1870 and 1930, clerical work changed from “men’s work” to “women’s work”.

Because typewriting replaced many handwriting tasks in offices; because more woman than men trained as typists; and because women were paid less than men, they posed a very real threat to men entering at the same level. Further, it was understood that “the machine required nimble fingerspresumably an attribute of women,” while it also required “no initiative”another presumed attribute of women (Kessler-Harris 148). As one office manager put it, women were more “’temperamentally reconciled’” to the simple repetitive task of typewriting than were their “ambitious” male counterparts (quoted in Kessler-Harris 149). In sum, typists were not expected to think but “simply to copy” (Kessler-Harris 148). In addition to her mindless efficiency at the typewriter, female typists also were desirable to employers because they were women, and therefore they “possess[ed] all the sympathetic and nurturing characteristics of a good wife” (Kessler-Harris 149). Of course, while women may have garnered the many entry level jobs more easily than did men, they did not advance to the higher paying, more challenging positions as did men. Whereas men were expected to have ambition and loyalty to their employer for long-term dedication to the business, women were valued for their efficiency at the typewriter, lack of ambition, and expendability. Interestingly, most female clerical workers were young, single women. Although clerical workers were expected to have the characteristics of a good wife, many businesses were opposed to hiring married women, believing that married women did not take their jobs seriously.

Although typewriters were positioned as being responsible for women’s emergence in the male dominated workforce it also reinforced pre-existing gender relationships. Marvin explains, “A useful strategy for stripping social phenomena of the power to endanger the status quo is to anchor them to safely established notions while presenting them for public consumption as revolutionary” (Marvin 205). By attaching existing gender relations and expectations to the typewriter, the male dominated workplace attempted to strip the machine of its revolutionary force of creating a space for women in the workplace.

Revisiting Bliven’s description of the typist typing at the beginning of the essay helps us see how the typist’s body is marked through her typewriting performance. First, we get a sense the body disciplined involved in typing. The precise description highlights the scientific management of the body, down to the fingers and their movement. If we look closely enough, we can see Meyerhold’s tri-part rhythm in the typist’s striking of the keys. Otkaz (the pre-gesture or preparation for action) is seen as she positions a given finger above a given key. Posil (the action) as her finger makes contact with the key. And Tochka (the rest) as her finger rises and pauses after the strike of the key. The tri-part rhythm central to biomechanics is repeated over and over again as the woman types. As each movement is deconstructed, perfected, and put back together to produce the performance of fluid and efficient movement; the typewriter becomes a fine-tuned typing machine.

Second, the typist’s use of her bodylike that of a boxerindicates a certain class of worker, particularly at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She may perform typing in a white-collar office, but her actions and position are blue collar.5 In at the turn of the century class codes were informed by Cartesian dualism, or the understanding that the mind was separate from and superior to the corporeal body, which operated in a biomechanical waye.g., responding, habitually to the ping of a bell for instance. As a result, blue-collar laborers who worked with machines or used their physical bodies like machines (i.e., in repetition) were aligned with the inferior body while white-collar laborers were aligned with the superior mind. The rub in the equation, according to Michael Kimmel, was that middle and upper class men suffered a “crises of masculinity” (13) since their physical bodies were less muscular and, so they perceived, less virile than their lower class counterparts. Put another way, the might of the machine threatened their control of it.

Finally, however, the typist does not type mindlessly, at best indifferently. Instead, she types as if she were in a boxing match, striking the keys firmly, throwing the carriage “a hefty sock,” and listening for “the ping of the bell” that signals “the next round.” Unlike automatons subjected totally to their mechanics, she types with agency and risk, as if there is something at stake (e.g., pride, employment, self-advancement, family sustenance, women’s rights) in performing typing well.

Female Types

The rapid increase of women in the work force as well as other social contexts brought about new imagery of women that quickly became mass-media stereotypes of the New Woman. A particular version of the New Woman was the very popular Gibson Girl, who made her debut in Lifein 1890. Named after her creator, Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson Girl was an idealized conglomerate of the Anglo-American woman. A vague and therefore adaptable beauty who was both independent, almost haughty at times, and delicate, fragile. By 1900, she was a well recognized stereotype, depicted in head, torso, and full body portraits on “silverware, pillow covers, chairs, tabletops, ashtrays, scarves, and wallpaper, sheet music, and advertisements” (Kitch 41). She was never depicted as inferior to men; in fact, it often appears she has a good-humored upper hand. The Gibson Girl was promoted and accepted as a positive stereotype for women, a model of democratic refinement for women of all classes, although the main target was the burgeoning middle to upper crust.

While positive images of independent women were produced throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, images of apprehension and skepticism also emerged, many criticizing women’s growing independence as manifested in her “choice” to work outside the home. Such women were accused of being selfish and just a little bit brashat the extreme, hussiesfor leaving their families and pursuing their own careers.

In other words, there are morally sound, responsible women who stay at home and care for their families and morally lax women who are so reliant on men that they venture into the workplace looking for them. In so far as the working woman competed with men, she threatened their rightful place and job security. She also threatened the institution of marriage, working side by side with husbands whose wives were at home. Thirdly, the working woman who was married demeaned her husband by implying that he was unable to provide fully for his family. The Gibson Girl, on the other hand, sought sociopolitical change while still fulfilling her feminine obligations.

While the suffragist movement and the increasing number of women in the workplace suggest reasons for the conservative imagery, such imagery also represented fears and uncertainties regarding modernityi.e., due to industrialization and urbanization, the departure and break from earlier so-called traditional beliefs and values and how they were expressed. The Gibson Girl straddled the line of expressing women’s empowerment and cultural anxieties, which is what made her successful.

The overwhelming feeling of loss and destruction of WWI brought about question regarding modernization, particularly the role and impact of industrial technologies. In response, experimentation, ambiguity, play, and chance were embraced both in the art world and people’s everyday lives. The condition of cultural infancy and the play of chance and ambiguity were evident in everyday life trends too. For youth in the U.S., the Roaring Twenties were times of reckless abandon marked by dancing, drinking, smoking, sexual freedom, and jazz. Young people (who could afford it) embraced a lifestyle that was drastically different from their elders and that was epitomized in the female stereotype that emerged from their raucous play: the flapper.

The flapper is a young, whiskey-swilling, cigarette-smoking, bobbed-haired gal dressed in a short, sleeveless shimmy dress that quivers as she dances to the beat of ragtime or jazz. On the one hand, the flapper is a child in character and appearance. Unlike the Gibson Girl’s silhouette of elegant curves, the flapper bears an androgynous shape created by the loose-fitting, drop-waist dress that renders her skinny, flat-chested, and hipless. Often portrayed as silly, selfish, and immature, her character traits are childlike too. On the other hand, the flapper is an independent woman, unmarried and free to do what she wants, sexually and otherwise.

While often depicted in the popular press as jobless—just passing through a phase before settling down to marriage—in everyday life there were plenty of flappers who held down jobs. In fact, Kessler-Harris speculates that women gained access to employment by assuming the flapper image. In other words, the flapper batted her mascara lashes to land a job and get paid a wage.

The flapper type was nourished on the silver screen, Hollywood becoming a lucrative industry in the 1920s and the screen a perfect place for industries, such as fashion, to pitch their products.6 While Hollywood depicted plenty of upper crust flappers, the everyday “mail order” type was evident too: young and unmarried, bobbed-haired and short-skirted, smart and sassy, and working as a secretary or typist, the flapper type made working girls fashionable and even glamorous. Propelled by the screen, the office gal became a trend setter. While a hot commodity for fashion, the office worker also held the kernel of every woman’s freedom.


Distillation of Types


The female figure rendered in each image is a female stereotypea distillation of womanhood to a material, corporeal form popular to her time.

Fig. 1: 'It's a Fox,' 1906The woman in the Fox illustration bears visual signs of the ideal young woman of the Victorian period, “Mr. Gibson’s American Girl.” Her hair has been illustrated in the same style of the Gibson Girl, piled and loosely gathered atop her head. Her clothing, very much in line with Victorian fashion with its long skirts that tighten around the waist, is modest yet flattering to her hourglass figure. However, as I look at the advertisement, I see something different about this Gibson Girl. Less like the Gibson Girl, who typically cultivated an aloof attitude, the illustrator has drawn this woman to engage the viewer with a cheerful smile seeming both to show off and look for praise regarding the piece of paper she has typed. Additionally, her body is not in an elegant position. Instead she has been drawn in a contorted position. Her torso faces the viewer while her lower half faces the typewriter. Further, while the Gibson Girl would snub any association with “a fox” (whether animal, female type, or machine), this gal seems pretty happy about it.

Fig. 2: 'Flapper Straddling Typewriter,' 1920sAs depicted, the woman in the second advertisement epitomizes the flapper, a 1920s stereotype known for her erotic androgyny (a child in a short dress or smock with bobbed hair) and rebellious attitude. Her short dress, stockings, and bobbed hair, her loose fitting dress, her stockings, and Mary Jane shoes are all attire worn by the stereotypical flapper. Her playful and child-like demeanor also is characteristic of a flapper. However, this woman appears to be doing something a little different. Although flappers were often described as androgynous and child-like, this subject is also sexual and powerful as she straddles the typewriter bench. She appears to be working or at least she is plucking at the keys of a typewriter positioned between her legs. Along with her coy glance toward the viewer, the curtained background suggests that she is “working” in a boudoir rather than office, which begs the question why might that be?

The typewriter also is a distilled item in each image. It distills modernity to industrialization, the machine, and the mechanization of the body through training processes such as Taylorism and Reflexology. It also reminds us of the ongoing belief at the time in the Cartesian split between the superior mind and the inferior body, resulting in the categorization of jobs in terms of mental or physical prowess. Since it was believed that typewriting required “no initiative” (i.e., thought) save “simply to copy,” it was considered an inferior job suited to women because of their temperament and “nimble fingers” (Kessler-Harris 148). There is good reason then or at least an intriguing story for why a woman rather than a man is shown with a typewriter in each image.

The two female typists are dependent on and contribute to the history of women entering the workplace (as typists in this case) in pursuit of financial gain and independence. While I would argue this labor history is unavoidable in the very placement of a woman and her machine in the same image, it is not the featured story. Rather, the distillation of the labor history serves stories of domestication and eroticism or sex work. In light of the negative views of working women, the use of the Gibson Girl type in the Fox advertisement is strategic since the type carries codes of both the domestic and commercial spheres. As a New Woman, the Gibson Girl is as successful at home as she is at school or in business, thereby tempering the negative views one might hold towards her. Further, given the ill-defined setting in the ad, this particular Gibson Girl could as well be at home (typing a letter to “My Dear” friends about the merits of a typewriter) as in an office (copying dictation from her boss to an undisclosed “Dear”perhaps herselfregarding the merits of a Fox). It’s not clear, and I suspect the ambiguity was deliberate on the part of the admen so as to quell fears arising from the display of the typewriter and its typical operator, a woman. The ambiguity also allows the product to be marketed to a broad consumer base: bosses or supply purchasers in offices as well as the New Woman at home or in an office setting. In other words, the distillation of (white collar) working women to a Gibson Girl type helps to domestic the perceived threat working women posed to men in the workplace. The domestication is enhanced by the action and pose of the woman. She is not depicted in the midst of the typing, rendered as a highly disciplined and efficient laborer within commerce and industry. Her labor is concealed in favor of showing the completed results: a short letter pulled from the carriage in response to which the woman smiles broadly. The results suggest typing (on a Fox) is easy, no sweat, and the woman is proud of her accomplishments. However, unlike the Gibson Girl type who is supremely self-confident, the intentionality of the admen to display the woman’s explicit “showing off” of her accomplishment implies a desire for praise. The woman’s pose suggests from whom she desires praise. It also is sexualized. In other words, the woman and her machine are ciphered through the male gaze. The viewer sees “the fox” through (heterosexual) male desire. Rather than sitting in a taylorized typing chair, the woman sits on a stool that is too high in relation to the desk and typewriter. The height causes her to hunch to reach the typewriter, which then shoves her bust forward and her derriere backwards. The focus on the bust and the behind is accentuated by the tensive twist of her torso, which allows her to be rendered both facing the typewriter (sitting on the desk) and displaying her torso to the viewer. The emphasis also is realized by the ruffles that decorate her derriere and the awkward lift of her right arm that further exposes her chest. By virtue of the design of the ad, the typewriting machine is sexualized too as the woman’s bust and thighs frame and envelop it. Further, the smooth round edges of the typewriter resemble the smooth round edges of the woman. In these ways, the woman and machine are distilled to a sexualized object, a woman-machine that is like a fox. Or, rather, “it is a fox,” no question about it. However, due to the double codes of the Gibson Girl type and the ambiguous setting, this fox does not threaten gender norms as much as combine “the good of the old” (domestic sphere) with “the best of the new” (commercial sphere). The 1920’s photograph performs a similar if more extreme story. Like the Gibson Girl in the Fox ad, the flapper in the photograph is not depicted typing. In fact, there is no paper to be seen anywhere, in or out of the typewriter. Rather, the woman fiddles with the keys of the typewriter, which is positioned between her legs on a bench that she straddles. Her skirt is raised exposing her stocking covered legs and Mary Jane heels. The woman looks directly at the camera and smiles coyly at the viewer. She seems happy and to be enjoying herself. Work (as in typing) appears to be the furthest thing from her mind. As in the Fox ad, the setting is ambiguous. In the background, elaborate curtains drape to the floor covering in part an intricate window, behind which there appears to be another room. It would seem the woman is either in an elaborate over-decorated office or in a home setting, such as a boudoir. Like the Fox ad, the photograph dismisses the disciplined training and skill involved in typing and thereby dismisses female labor generally and in office settings in particular. The history of female wage earners is distilled to the fiddling of fingers on keys; in other words, it is sexualized and in more explicit ways than in the Fox ad. Calling on Kessler-Harris, the image represents “what a business community would have liked its young women workers to be. . . . flighty, apolitical, and irresponsible” and thereby supportive of “the male world without the threat of competition” (226). While this flapper may have emerged from her home into the business world, her economic independence is questionable or, more to the point, we have the sneaking suspicion that she might be employed in that oldest of professions. The photograph falls in the category of typewriter erotica, the main subjects often being “secretaries.” In typewriter erotica, the intersection of titillating subject matter, typewriters, and photography is intriguing in light of Lawrence Levine’s account of the emergence of highbrow and lowbrow cultural categories in the U.S. in the late nineteenth through twentieth centuries. Informing the cultural hierarchy was the Cartesian perspective, implemented by those with the power and inclination to police culture by distinguishing between the superior mind and its highbrow expressions and the inferior body and its lowbrow products. In addition to cultural practices that highlighted the corporeal body, such as burlesque, erotica, and wrestling, lowbrow culture included the reproductive machines of industry and commerce, such as typewriters and cameras, and those bodies that used or ran them. In other words, photography was not considered an art because like typing it copied rather than created art and anyone could do it with relatively little trainingor so that was the perception. Put in counter culture terms, photography democratized art. “It was the perfect instrument for a society with a burgeoning middle class, which could now satisfy itself with processes and images that had previously been confined to elite circles” (Levine 161). We might recall that the lowbrow flapper functioned similarly. According to Kessler-Harris, “the flapper image contained the seeds of every woman’s freedom. Once having escaped their father’s houses, young women leapt beyond temporary secretarial jobs into graduate and professional schools. Access to the business world legitimized the goal of independence” (226).

On the one hand, then, the erotic photograph distills the many stories embedded in its components to a sexualized image of a working girl, a prostitute in short. On the other hand, the conglomerate of lowbrow aspects suggests there might be a powerful counter force at work in the imagea class based counter that does not elide the objectification of the working woman as much as reveal other facets therein.

By means of domestication and sexualization, the types temper the threat of female labor in the male dominated work placethe Gibson Girl inclining more toward domestication and the flapper more toward sexualization or eroticism. In doing so, the physical and psychological discipline and training required of typing is concealed. While the typewriter machine implies labor (i.e., imagine the images without the machine), the labor is quickly upstaged by the figure of the woman whose pose operates to mask the labor. The pose subjects the typewriter to itself, while both are subjected to the male gaze and desire. Put another way, the woman’s pose contains the quintessential hooked cane of the theatre that yanks the disliked performer, “Labor” in this case, back stage and tells her to be quiet. Remaining on stage are the well liked performers of “Domesticity,” “Erotica,” and “Leisure,” quite happy it seems to conceal the threat women and their labor pose to men and “their” world.

Destabilizing the Type(s)


In this section, I concentrate on the second stage of stylization. Having discussed how the images distill their many stories to essences that economize expression on the front side or front stage of the mask, I am interested in how the essence is countered by its own excess. I am interested in exploring that which is concealed back stage in each image, or on backside of the mask each woman wears. So, that which has been distilled leaks out and can be seen, for example, by a juxtaposition of elements. The double- or multiple-voiced tactics of mask, the grotesque, and tricksters enable my investigation revealing the theatrical double-life of the images. Finally, I through my analysis, I argue that the two images offer a potentially revolutionary force.

Looking at the images, a number of ambiguities arise as to their production, distribution, and target audiences. For example, the illustrator of the Gibson Girl advertisement is unknown. We do know that the illustration was made for the purpose of selling the typewriter. However, it is unclear if the creator intentionally created this Gibson Girl with a subversive agenda or if the illustration is just a glimpse of exploited labor. Ambiguities and imagistic contradictions present themselves in the photograph of the flapper as well. Again, the photographer is anonymous. It is unclear how this photograph circulated, but the target audience would have been individuals interested in a sexualized typist. There is no indication of who staged the flapper and the typewriter in this particular relationship to one another. We can’t know if it was the photographer or the woman who came up with this pose. Again, it is unclear if this photograph presents a subversive force or if it is simply a sexually fetishized image. And finally, we can’t know if there is another intent in this photograph other than displaying a sexualized secretary. We don’t know if the photographer, the woman, or both is responsible for the potentially subversive imagery.

Upon closer scrutiny of the Gibson Girl I can see the artist has drawn the faintest of smiles. It draws me in, and her glazed stare, flawless hair, and fixed position become something more. It is as if her smile gives her life beyond the image. While initially I read the two images that concern me as visual artifacts that perpetuate negative stereotypes of women in the workplace, upon study and reflection, I find the women in the images to be clever, playful, and powerful as well. They claim a subversive agency, questioning and critiquing the roles they are asked to perform in their respective images. They perform with a difference. By concealing labor the images hazard discipline. They hazard the show of disciplined bodies contributing to the economic system with efficiency. In other words, they hazard the show of that which discipline tries to control, namely, bodies of excess and unpredictability: grotesque bodies, which mixes opposites and celebrates incongruities so as to express its “mocking attitude to life” (Meyerhold 137; italics in original). Mikhail Bakhtin elaborates on the grotesque, claiming it as one of two fundamental principles of carnival, the other being laughter. Based on the understanding that societies divide the collective and individual body into high and low domains, the grotesque body highlights and celebrates the public enactment of low domain imagery and actions, such as defecation and copulation, eating and drinking to excess, the show of genital organs and sexually encoded body parts such as butts and breasts and orifices generally, and human-animal analogies, such as pigs, dogs, and bitches. “It’s a fox.” The grotesque body is a body that exceeds itself so as to intermingle with the world, and thereby it is always a “double body” (Bakhtin, “The Grotesque Image of the Body” 93). For Bakhtin, carnival laughter is “the laughter of all the people. . . . [I]t is directed at all and everyone, including the carnival's participants. . . . It asserts and denies, it buries and revives (Bakhtin, Rabelais 12). For Bakhtin, then, there is no transcendent victim or hero in carnival. Together, the two principles aim to invert (temporarily or permanently) social norms so as to level social hierarchies. As Bakhtin writes, the principle function of carnival is “degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract [. . .] to the material level, to the sphere of the earth and body" (Rabelais 19-20). Notably, carnival degradation is not only destructive but potentially gives rise to alternative bodies, identities, relationships, and meanings, and for this reason it can pose a very real threat to social order and control. Hence, carnivalesque-grotesque bodies and activities are often contained within institutions by discourses and bodily practices that discipline or regiment them, turn them into consumer commodities, or exterminate them.

The 1920s erotic photograph inclines toward the grotesque due to the explicit sexuality of the female figure and in relation to the typewriter. In Meyerhold’s terms, the photograph is humorous because of the incongruous relationship between the woman as posed and the machine, between animate corporeality and inanimate machinery or, in classic gender terms, between female and male, boudoir and office, leisure and labor. Further, in Bakhtin’s terms, neither the woman nor the machine is advanced as superior to the other; both are demeaned equally we might saythe woman due to her “eye candy” pose and the typewriter due to the flapper’s coy (or is it indifferent) fiddling with it. Lastly, neither the woman nor the machine appears concerned with meeting economic expectations of labor efficiency, product output, and progress. It is a moment of leisure, carnival “blow off,” carefully hemmed in by the private setting of the fictive world and by the photo as commodity in the theatrical, commercial world of the viewer. Of course, the very need to context the carnival as private (which on the meta-level of production is public) implies its threat to social norms.

As I look at the photograph, it seems to me the flapper is aware of the threat she poses. First, due to the odd office- boudoir setting and the mocking made of typing, the photograph acknowledges its artifice. It is not a real performance of typing-sex, and as a result, it establishes a double-life that the female figure substantiates and takes advantage of. The flapper’s smile and return gaze at the camera implies she is aware of the blatant sexualization of her body and the typewriter. She plays the role of the playful and sexual flapper so as not to be perceived as a threat. However, she also straddles the typewriter, appearing to desire and poke fun at it, tease it, simultaneously. Whether the typewriter is understood as man, machine, or even modernity, she controls it. At the extreme, we might say she figuratively, “screws” it.

While I wouldn’t say that the rhetorical aim and effect of the Fox advertisement is carnival degradation, I do think that the Gibson Girl as performed in the ad introduces low or lower domain codes than those commonly associated with the Gibson Girl. The depicted figure is not “a tall, radiant being” with a “delicately-rounded bosom,” “fine-modeled” lips and a “serene brow.” Neither is she haughty with a “piquantly uptilted” nose (Kitch 39). Rather, the woman is round almost plump with an ample bosom and behind, an enthusiastic demeanor, and an open-mouth smile. She is drawn so that her corporeality exceeds that of the ideal Gibson Girl, and in this way she is a double (voiced) body. She refers to but re-functions the ideallowers it to the material levelso as to articulate the working class women who actually used typewriters in office settings. In this way, the ad communicates with office managers looking to purchase many “Foxes” while it also tempers the threat of many “Foxes” by means of the domestic signs I discussed earlier. Put another way, the labor mass is acknowledged so as to encourage mass consumption while it also is controlled via the domestic signs of individuation and separation.

Another tricky aspect of the Fox ad concerns its sentimental signs. To express their “discontent” with the domestic sphere (Landry 35), female tricksters of the nineteenth century performed the sentimental role. That is, by donning the conventions of sentiment in the novels, poetry, advice manuals, newspaper columns, etchings and illustrations they composed, and in their own comportment, women were able to move between the private and public spheres more easily than if they rebelled against the expected role. By speaking and acting through sentiment, they could proffer opinions and take action on social issues of the day, such as slavery, prostitution, living conditions of the poor, and unfair labor practices, as well as focus on matters pertinent to marriage, raising a family, and keeping a home. Performing sentimental allowed women to not only challenge restrictive domestic codes but perform domesticity in public and thereby make it a social (rather than a private, individuated) concern. Often coupled with humor, the sentimental pose allowed women to address incongruities in the lives of women at home and in public and thereby challenge restrictive patriarchal ideologies.

Most women who held positions in offices were often middle-class. Additionally, the moral values from the domestic code of the prior century, which encouraged women to be virtuous wives and mothers, were still held in the minds of people in the U.S. So, while middle-class women left the home to work in offices, they performed the role of secretary and typist, while being expected to uphold her virtuosity as a wife and mother. Women were expected to possess nurturing and sympathetic characteristics while she performed routine tasks. Our Gibson Girl looks the part and is even playing or pretending to play the part. She puts on the mask of sentimental by taking on the style of the Gibson Girl and plays sentimental in order to survive in the male dominated work place.

The contortion of her body to reveal her exaggerated bust and behind indicate to me that the illustrator is aware of his or her Gibson Girl’s objectification and sexualization. However, what is most telling to me is her smile. What is she smiling about anyway? Is she supposed to be enthusiastic about the paper she has typed or is she mocking it? Her enthusiastic and questionably sincere smile about the work she has just completed (although the paper appears to be blank) pokes fun at the incongruity, and uses it to her benefit. The illustrator understands the stereotype of the Gibson Girl and the limitations as well as the possibilities attached to it. Perhaps the illustrator is aware that by creating a woman putting on the mask of the Gibson Girl and displaying her performing the sentimental or domesticity in the workplace (ie displaying her nurturing and sympathetic qualities associated with being a good wife and mother) while performing a task that is thought to require “no initiative” allows her transgress gender and economic boundaries and not to be perceived as a threat by men.

The Fox advertisement and the photograph of the flapper work to reveal and conceal histories industrialization, mechanization, discipline, class, gender stereotypes, and the emergence of women in the workplace. Drawing on Meyerhold’s conceptual-theoretical discourse allowed me to explore the specific ways in which the images perform with a difference. First, I discussed how the women in the images performed the front stage of the mask i.e. mass stereotypes of women. I then discussed how they performed the back stage of mask by challenging and subverting those stereotypes. In each image, the essence of each image is countered by its own excess. There is always a backside of the mask. By revealing the double- or multiple-voiced tactics of mask, the grotesque, and tricksters I uncovered the theatrical double-life and potential revolutionary force of the images. The resulting performances are complex, revealing the possibilities as well as the limitations in playing for and tricking the audience simultaneously.



1 The images were donated to the Virtual Typewriter Museum by the P. C. and Weil Collection and the Typistries Collection. The function of the photograph is unclear as there is no information regarding its production, ownership, or distribution.

2 For Foucault, the job of the genealogist to unearth the disparate histories. He explains that the goal of the genealogist is to, “study the beginning—numberless beginnings whose faint traces and hints of color are readily seen by an historical eye. For Foucault, genealogy is a form of carnival. By unearthing multiple and disparate histories genealogy reverses capital “H” history. Furthermore, it situates the body as a site of history and the typist’s body is no exception.

3 Elocution was the verbal counterpart of bodily discipline. It gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries during industrial and technological advancement that privileged efficiency. E. P. Thompson argued that the industrial “pressures towards discipline and order extended from the factory . . . into every aspect of life: leisure, personal relationships, speech, manners” (p. 401). Elocution disciplined the body to rid the voice of excess and “curb its unruly embodiments and refine its coarse and uncouth features” (Conquergood 143), which distinguished social classes. There were exercises, workshops, training manuals to aid in disciplining the voice. Rather than being a marker for blue-collar workers, vocal rather than physical disciplined was a mark of class and privilege.

4 Patent furniture was taylorized for different functions than parlor furniture, but it also brought about distinctions between the body and the mind. In “Nineteenth-Century Patent Seating: Too Comfortable to be Moral,” Jennifer Pynt and Joy Higgs explain that patent furniture was designed to help the body perform specialized tasks in an efficient, comfortable, and stress free wayvery like Taylor’s scientific management of bodies. Within the category of patent furniture, an interesting distinction arises between chairs made for typing and writing. Based on the scientific study of task requirements, efficiency, and comfort, the Writer’s Chair reclines so as to allow contemplation whereas the Typewriter’s Chair does not. As validated by scientific research, the designers found that thought and reflection is not required of typing whereas it is required of writing (Pynt and Higgs 4). Significantly, at the time, writing was associated most with men and occurred in the privacy of their offices or home libraries whereas typing was associated with women and occurred in the public office space. Apparently, it was understood that typists do not need to contemplate word choices, but rather reproduce words already chosen by others who were reclining and thinking elsewhere.

5 Within the ranks of wage-earning women, there was a hierarchy of class, ethnicity, and race. White (typically Anglo) women born in the U.S. of affluent families were able to afford an education and be hired for higher paying “cleaner” jobs, such as those of college professor, lawyer, doctor, dentist, chemist, and office supervisor. Less affluent white women (born in the U.S. or immigrants) who could speak English and afford short training courses often took jobs in offices. Women of color and less affluent women who could not speak English well were employed on the factory line, as waitresses, or as domestic servants. Notably, while assembly line jobs paid better than lower level office positions, women preferred the latter because of the class and race or ethnic status aligned with each. Simply, an office job was a “white collar” job whereas a factory job was not. The types of jobs also bore different codes of femininity, the domestic code of the mid nineteenth century yet at work. For instance, it was believed that women did not sacrifice their femininity if they trained for and took jobs as teachers or nurses. While jobs as doctors or business managers paid well, they were less compatible with woman’s “natural” inclination (and duty) to marry, bear and raise children.

6 In Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, Jane Gaines provides a back story to this point. She explains that film producers and directors wanted their actors and sets to appear new, chic, and up-to-date, a desire that fashion designers were only too happy to fulfill. In turn, viewers of the fashions shown in the film learned what products they might purchase to realize the chic imagery for themselves. In other words, fashion and particularly flapper fashion in this case were affordable to women of diverse economic classes.



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Sarah K. Jackson is a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies at Louisiana State University. Her work has been published with Liminalities (“Electric Vanity”), Tenderloin (“Tender-loin Video Collage”), Southern Spaces and Folkstreams (“The Art of Depicting Scenery” from Revisiting Flaherty’s Louisiana Story”). She is currently writing her dissertation on the role of time, space, and memory in the assemblage practices of artist Joseph Cornell.

© 2013 Sarah K. Jackson, used by permission.

Technoculture Volume 3 (2013)