Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “What Shall I Do?”: Paid Employment for Mormon Girls, 1927 — part 7: The Stenographer

“What Shall I Do?”: Paid Employment for Mormon Girls, 1927 — part 7: The Stenographer

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 28, 2011

“What Shall I Do?”: Paid Employment for Mormon Girls, 1927

Agnes Lovendahl Stewart

The introduction to this series is posted here.

VII. The Stenographer


Keys to the Door of Opportunity!

Typewriter keys!

Yes, really, that is what they are. You can get almost anywhere by the route of stenography – that is, anywhere in the field of business. All of which mixes our metaphors considerably, but still sticks to the truth; for the value of making funny scrawls on paper which nobody else can read, and pecking away at a little machine, lies not in being a stenographer, but in making stenography a stepping-stone to something greater.

Let me here, right at the beginning where it will be impressive, tell you how very important it is to secure as much education as you possibly can before you become a stenographer, because your rise afterward will be just that much more rapid.

I know that you can go to a business college immediately after graduating from the grades, and there become efficient in shorthand, typewriting and penmanship in from six to nine months. And you can undoubtedly be just as efficient at those three things as a college graduate who takes a similar course. But you will not have the same background for progress.

If I may be pardoned for introducing personal experience, I’ll admit to you that I became a stenographer after I had obtained an A.B. degree from the University of Utah, and a Master of Arts degree from the Columbia University. And I will quite cheerfully admit that any girl fresh from business college with no other education above the eighth grade, could have done much more accurate typing than I, and as for shorthand, I did not know a single stroke! But I was a stenographer for only three months. The knowledge I had worked for in five years of college and post-graduate education enabled me to use stenography as a stepping-stone to something else I wanted very much to do.

If you have not the opportunity to obtain the education you wish before you take up the work of stenography, that doesn’t matter. Study as you go along – night school, correspondence school, reading – and never allow yourself to stop growing mentally.

A beginning stenographer must be able to typewriter at least sixty words a minute net, after you have deducted ten words for each error made. If you can type eighty words a minute after deducing for errors, you are considered very quick.

Speed, however, is not nearly as essential in actual business practice as accuracy. If your boss has to correct your errors in spelling, or if he finds letters transposed or piled on top of each other, or sentences without the sense, it will be the first thing that will throw gasoline on the fire of his wrath and cause him to send you to the cashier for your time.

First of all, then, be accurate. Second, be methodical. Remember where you put things. If possible, remember also where he put things, for he is going to hold you responsible for the letters he loses.

Show an interest in the business. No boss likes to feel that his stenographer is using her job merely as a stop-gap between school and marriage; something merely to fill in the time, as it were, and provide a little spending money for theatres and clothes. Even if you don’t care about anything but the dance tonight and perhaps the run in your new chiffon hose, it is still wise to try to develop some concern for the orders coming in and the shipments going out, and other routine about the office.,

One girl I know who started as a stenographer is now private secretary to the president of a large business concern. Her job is an important one, with many responsibilities and consequently a very good salary.

Her story is similar to many many others. As soon as she became accustomed to her work she began to study ways of efficiency which would make her work more accurate and more quickly finished. Every moment she had to spare she studied the business of the firm for which she was working. She learned from other employees, and she read all of the magazines dealing with that type of business which she could get. She did not rattle off the letters she wrote with her mind on something else – instead she studied each letter, and the boss’s answers as he dictated them to her.

After a while she said, “Don’t you think I could handle the routine letters myself, so that you wouldn’t have to be bothered with anything unless it was out of the ordinary?”

“Sure!” he said enthusiastically. “I’d be mighty glad to have you do it if you can. You try it out a couple of weeks, and I’ll read all of the letters you write to see that no mistakes are made. Then if you can do it all right, I’ll turn them over to you.”

She made a few mistakes, and he pointed out to her the reasons for his corrections. Then she took over the work of answering all ordinary correspondence herself. It meant a raise in salary, and a very great raise in the confidence and esteem of her employer.

Now she has made herself as necessary to his business as milk is to babies. Many of the new ventures are really planned by her. She knows – and she is not as rare a species of stenographer as you might imagine – as much or more about her employer’s business than he does himself.

I’ll grant you it is hard to begin. Many times I have seen girls with their perfectly good diplomas tucked under their arms going hopefully from office to office, only to meet the same query, “Have you had any experience?” And when they all ask you that, how will you ever get experience? If there were only some place where ambitious girls might buy experience at so much a pound or so much a bushel!

I wish I knew the solution of the problem to tell you some magic way! The school where you study will do its best to help you obtain a position after your graduation from the business course. Then you should register at every agency selling typewriters, for these places frequently hear of vacancies. And you should also go personally and apply wherever you think there might be an opportunity. Then be of good cheer, for there will be an opening for you to start, and after you gain the coveted experience, the world lies before you.

May I mention here just a word about clothes? When women first went into business, they thought they must dress as much like men as possible. They wore stiff collars and mannish ties, and hideous suits. They thought they were doing men’s work and must therefore appear masculine. How terribly ugly those outfits were!

In office work where you are meeting people who have business dealing with the firm, your clothes are important, for they give people their first impression of you and of your firm. Something quiet but smart, something feminine but not frilly, something practical but well made with good lines, something crisp and clean and pretty.

Yes, typewriter keys are the keys to the door of opportunity. Through them you may rise to executive positions in almost any line of business. In banks, in offices, in stores – everywhere, are women in important positions who started as stenographers.



  1. Wow. Typing. Funny timing after a lengthy discussion elsewhere last night about that very topic.

    Mrs. Stewart includes some autobiographical information in this one (“if [she] may be pardoned”), and her advice on dress seems applicable even today. What an interesting series this is.

    Comment by Researcher — February 28, 2011 @ 7:48 am

  2. I love this one! The emphasis on working your way up and becoming important to your company instead of just waiting for marriage is very encouraging.

    Comment by kew — February 28, 2011 @ 8:26 am

  3. Oh, but there is no mention of starting salaries. That’s odd.

    Comment by kew — February 28, 2011 @ 8:27 am

  4. That*is* odd, I agree. It may be because this work is available in so many different fields, but you’d think the starting salary for stenography (what amounts to basically the typing pool, since Mrs. Stewart distinguishes this kind of work from the position of secretary) would be roughly the same in any field.

    I like her advice on dress, too, Researcher. There were occasional editorial remarks in the YWJ warning against wearing “party” clothes to the office, which is probably equivalent to Mrs. Stewart’s “frilly.” But I do love the idea that you can be feminine and smart and crisp and be business-appropriate without mimicking a man’s wardrobe.

    When I learned to type, the standard deduction for errors when calculating speed was only 5 wpm, explained as the time necessary to make corrections (in those days we used typewriter erasers with brushes at the end to brush away the eraser crumbs, and often had to correct multiple carbon copies at the same time — they didn’t even have correcting tape or Wite-Out yet). I wonder if the difference in deduction reflects an improvement in erasure technology, or just a difference in philosophy?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2011 @ 8:53 am

  5. This passage

    When women first went into business, they thought they must dress as much like men as possible. They wore stiff collars and mannish ties, and hideous suits. They thought they were doing men’s work and must therefore appear masculine. How terribly ugly those outfits were!

    makes me think of the 1980’s. :)

    Comment by kew — February 28, 2011 @ 9:09 am

  6. Wow! “As necessary to business as milk is to babies.”

    If you’re not mothering a baby at home, you can mother your boss at work. Interesting choice of a metaphor.

    Comment by Carol — February 28, 2011 @ 9:40 am

  7. That’s not far off from a secretary’s duties, Carol. Most secretaries have to wait on bosses, clean up after them, amuse them, keep track of their things, arrange their play dates, deal with their temper tantrums, fetch their lunches, stroke their egos build their tender self-esteem, warn them if their ties are not straight or their flies zipped before they go out to play …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 28, 2011 @ 9:54 am

  8. Interesting that in describing this line of work, the author seems to encourage moving on to something else as quickly as possible.

    I think the advice on how to “move up” the pay scale is still valid in the business world. (The quietly competent advice in the OP)

    On a personal note, my grandmother always wanted to be a career woman and– after graduating from high school–learned shorthand, typing, and other office skills at Stevens Heneger college in the late 1930s. An article like this may have been what planted the idea.

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2011 @ 10:54 am

  9. Two things: Yes, there are still a few secretaries out there, but while the PC has really helped boost productivity via word processing, it also eliminated many jobs for stenographers/secretaries. The other downside is that except for high level (mostly C-level, ie CFO, CIO, COO, etc) executive positions, most middle managers type all their own correspondence, albeit much of it in email, and do more of the work formerly done by stenographers or secretaries in these positions, all because the PC is ubiquitous.

    Also, Hillary Clinton apparently didn’t get the dress code memo in the 80’s, 90’s, or anytime since.

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

  10. Oh, and I agree that learning all you can about the business you work for is still a key to advancement. Again, think Hillary Clinton. :)

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  11. Mms Makutsi. 97 percent.

    That is all.

    Comment by Coffinberry — March 1, 2011 @ 6:51 am

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI