"California Typewriter"

How one machine transformed the workforce

The Econ Extra Credit Team Nov 24, 2021
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The technology at the center of our November documentary film selection seems quaint when compared to everything that’s been developed since.

But underestimate the typewriter, which played a transformative role in the history of the labor market, at your peril. Although the hobbyists in “California Typewriter” were primarily men, the typewriter changed many lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, boosting women’s labor force participation rates to never-before-seen levels.

Elyce Rotella, an economic historian at the University of Michigan, joined David Brancaccio to discuss the career opportunities that were (and were not) open to women about a century ago, how advertising for typewriters specifically targeted women and how the machine changed the workplace forever.

In 1870, 2.5% of clerical workers in the U.S. were women, according to Rotella. By 1930, that figure reached 52.5%. “The typewriter is key. It’s not the key, but it is certainly crucial,” she said.

Rotella said people thought it was “appropriate” for women to do clerical work that consisted of using typewriters, even as society was still strenuously debating whether or not it was appropriate for women to be working alongside men in the office at all.

Read or listen to the full conversation with Rotella here.

Thanks for watching along with us. We’ll be back soon with our December documentary selection. In the meantime, we welcome your ideas and feedback: extracredit@marketplace.org

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