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Book review: ‘Swimming in the Steno Pool’

Your assistant puts up with a lot.

She (and it’s almost always “she”) deals with grumpy customers and grouchy clients. She pretties up paperwork and prints presentations.  When you can’t find things, she preternaturally knows where they are.

You couldn’t find a better assistant. She has a pretty good boss.

But in a not-so-distant past, your relationship might have been very different. For one, she might have been he. Read about that and more in “Swimming in the Steno Pool” (W.W. Norton & Co., $16.95 ) by Lynn Peril.

If you’ve watched TV in the past three dozen years, you’re probably familiar with Ebenezer Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit.

Men like Cratchit were the secretaries of their time, mostly because ladies didn’t work. Besides, male clerks had a good chance of taking over the business someday, something refined women couldn’t do.

When staffing shortages occurred during the Civil War, the U.S. government hired women to do “dainty” jobs, a foot-in-the-door that kept the door wide open.

In 1870, says Peril, only five female shorthand writers were employed in New York City. Fifty years later, 90 percent of all steno-typist jobs were held by women.

Grab any young women’s magazine from the middle of the past century, Peril says, and you’ll find dozens of ads for secretarial schools. While some women sought training so they’d have a career “to fall back on,” others became secretaries because there were few alternate choices for those who wanted or needed work.

Oftentimes, though, being a secretary  was what a woman aspired to: Peril, self-admitted secretary, was captivated by the “glamour” of the office job held by a beloved big-city aunt.

But being a secretary was no star-studded gig.

“Office wives” were expected to work overtime with a smile and to take better care of The Boss than his real spouse did: getting his coffee, keeping his calendar, making reminders, plus doing her job. A secretary was charming and ladylike, dressed demurely, never smoked or drank, happily postponed lunch if needed and was supernaturally organized.

And as the years went by, she taught The Boss one important lesson: Be nice. She might be just a secretary today, but she could be his boss tomorrow.

Peril’s discoveries are surprising (coffee breaks were unheard-of until World War II), shocking (it was almost illegal to hire a married woman in 1939) and amusing (a responsible job was once seen as “good training” for marriage).

If you’ve got support staff to appreciate, you’ll both appreciate what you’ll learn here. For you, “Swimming in the Steno Pool” is your type of book.

The Bookworm, Terri Schlichenmeyer, is a Wisconsin-based book reviewer.

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