A magic lantern slide of Edwardian office workers

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Today’s photograph is taken from a magic lantern slide of Port Sunlight, Lever Bros.’ (now Unilever) purpose-built soap factory on the Wirral side of the River Mersey. It shows just one of their clerks’ offices.

This set me thinking about the world of office work that we love or hate. In just a hundred years we’ve come from hand-written letters, invoices and ledgers to paperless (or not, in practice) systems that require little human input.

The clerks (when did we stop using that word?) shown here are part of a paper-based process for receiving customers’ enquiries; sending product information and quotations; arranging visits by salesmen (not women); receiving and acknowledging orders; preparing and delivery orders; sending invoices; chasing overdue payments and tracking, via hand-written account books, all the relevant financial transactions. And that’s just the sales department! The manufacturing, printing, transport, maintenance departments and many others, all had their own paper based administrative systems.

Were these men happy in their work? Well, it was certainly better than working in a coal mine or, indeed, the factory next door where they made the soap (where the women worked!) and it was a job with prospects. After twenty years dedicated service, you might become a senior clerk with a bigger desk. My guess is that their work was pretty monotonous. In the 1960s, I did both admin and production jobs that were relentlessly repetitive, same task, hour after hour, day after day and they weren’t my happiest times.

Tis said that happiness depends on the level of control we have in our lives. If we’re on a production line, real or virtual, factory or call-centre, where we cannot control the process or its speed, we tend to be unhappy. If we have freedom to vary our tasks, make decisions, interact with others, perhaps show a little kindness to someone, we are happy in our work. This works with money as well. With it, we have control over our lives, without it, we don’t. Hmmm, I’m being far more philosophical in this post than intended, sorry, it’s an age thing.

So, does this photo show happy workers? They probably considered themselves fortunate, as they worked for a progressive employer and had a myriad of company benefits, from good housing to sports and social activities provided by the company, as long as they abided its moral code, in and out of working hours. So, content maybe, optimistic about the future, probably, but happy, who knows?

Was office life better then than now and what about the future? Given that many offices have been replaced by remote work stations, home working and smart phones, will there be any offices in twenty years’ time?

If you’d like to see more of my Port Sunlight magic lantern slides, you can do so in this video on my YouTube Channel.  

If you like what I do, please share my posts with family and friends. To see similar posts, please visit my website Magic Lantern World and to receive new ones automatically, click ‘follow’.

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