Did you just get way more done when you worked in an office before the Internet?
August 13, 2009 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Did you work in an office before the Internet? What did you do? Also, what was on your desk?

People always joke about how the Internet is just a big time waster for people who work in offices, and the whole blog industry is basically a drag on office productivity, and everyone who works in an office has stories like, "oh man, I really didn't get anything done today, I played some dumb flash game for two hours/got sucked into wikipedia/facebook-stalked people/whatever". I'm sure at some level it becomes a problem when people actually stop doing their jobs. But for most people, I imagine its a mostly harmless break. I think I actually read some research that supported this hypothesis.

But either way, what the hell did people do in offices before the internet? Did they just plug away on their work, straight through for eight, ten, fourteen hours a day without stopping? Or did they take breaks by like staring into space or something?

Even people I know who work in offices where they are really tight about internet time wasting (e.g. trading floors), they all have tricks they use to send or read personal email, etc. I just can't imagine what an office was like without the internet.

I've been wondering this for a while, but I was watching Mad Men last night, and Draper goes into Duck's office and he's like, "Nice battlefield," gesturing to Duck's desk, and Duck goes, "I don't like anything on it but ashes." Seeing as how in Mad Men, basically all their work takes place standing around and BSing, why did they even have desks? I could see for the secretaries, they are always typing stuff, but the other guys, no typewriter, no computer, what's the point of even having a desk?
posted by jeb to Work & Money (71 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
I worked in an office before the Internet, and I definitely got a lot done, but I was working data entry at the time so I also got repetitive stress problems in my wrists. I also drank a lot more coffee and did a lot more B.S. with co-workers.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2009

I was actually thinking about Mad Men and all the time they spend not working, drinking and BS-ing in general.

Yeah, its hard to tell if thats supposed to be realistic, or just like for the show because watching people work is not that exciting (unless you are Michael Mann or Studs Terkel I guess).
posted by jeb at 11:00 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

The last job I had before the internet became ubiquitous was at a non-profit in the late nineties. I could easily get all of my work done by lunchtime. The rest of the time, I would read books, do the crossword, and make collages of the comics in that day's newspaper. (I got to leave right at 5, so I could easily have four hours of downtime each day.)

I don't think I screwed around any less than I do now, but I felt that my around screwage was a lot more productive and enriching. Internet make me dumberer.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2009

I worked as an equity analyst and there were a lot of papers (annual reports, 10-ks, 8-ks, etc) on my desk along with a PC that had Lotus 1-2-3. I would spend time developing spreadsheets to make projections. My phone also came in handy on the desk. My newspaper was there too. Lots more paper and files going back and forth. My assistant would clip items from papers and magazines. Now it would be a link.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:05 AM on August 13, 2009

A lot more personal phone calls is the obvious one. I also remember fighting boredom during down time by messing around in whatever CRM software the company used (usually nosy stuff like calling up sales reports to try to figure out exactly how much individual sales reps made in a year), which had the nice effect of making it look like I was working even though I wasn't doing anything useful. At a particularly dull temp job (I have no idea why they thought they needed a temp since I seemed to be given about 15 minutes worth of work per day on an 8-hr shift) I used to make up a lot of excuses to take walks around the office (luckily it was a huge building making this an easy time waster).
posted by The Gooch at 11:06 AM on August 13, 2009

I remember visiting my mom at her office when I was a kid. She was a secretary and sat in a bIg open space with other secretaries. They did work a lot, I remember, but they also just BS'ed with each other and took personal calls. There was a roving snack cart that came by at certain times, so that was a cue for them to get up and chat for a while.

I remember there was one lady who would rummage through her desk drawer for a few minutes. Turned out she kept a book in there and would sneak in a read. She was really good at that, I only knew she was reading because she let my mom in on it.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:09 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, there's always been ways to waste time. My desk had a phone, calendar pad, paperwork, in and out box, reference books, notebook, adding machine, etc. But if I wanted to take a break, my desk drawer had a newspaper, novels or other fun books, magazines, crosswords, personal writing notebook, radio, Walkman/CD player. You could also waste time by making phone calls to friends, chatting with coworkers, or going for a walk.
posted by The Deej at 11:09 AM on August 13, 2009

I worked in an office before the interenet, and had a real wood desk. There was the area for my typewriter, and a spot for my phone. My sales leads were on index cards. Computer reports would come on green line paper, via interoffce courier. I would work the reports, and type memos to reflect my work, then return them to the home office via the interoffice courier. I wore a suit at my desk, with tie.

We had a word processing program, on an independent work station, in 1986. People were afraid to use it, because fixing the damned thing was so expensive.

I would type letters to friends on the electric typewriter (Selectric) during my slow times. These would be mailed in real envelopes. Paperback books were important for time killing, but you had to read them in a subtle fashion.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 11:11 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to get dinged ALL the time for being on personal phone calls. That stopped the moment IMs became popular. :-)
posted by Mysticalchick at 11:14 AM on August 13, 2009

Well I do the same thing now, graphic design, but back then, I was crouched over a drafting table juggling a t-square, one-coat, an x-acto knife, and a temperamental 000 rapid-o-graph. The phone was perched up there too but everything else would slide down the incline. Downtime? What downtime? This newspaper ad had to make the Fed-Ex pickup by 5 pm or someone would be driving to the airport again to catch the 7 pm plane.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:15 AM on August 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

I played a lot of Minesweeper, wrote a screenplay (and a lot of other stuff), and designed flyers for various meetings/protests/demonstrations (this was back in my rabble-rousing days) during my downtime. Oh, and because I was the spokesperson for one of the activist groups I was in, I often went to demonstrations or gave radio or TV interviews on my lunch break.
posted by scody at 11:21 AM on August 13, 2009

Neither of my parents had computers in their offices until just a few years ago. Whenever they needed the internet, they'd head across the hall to the room where the secretaries sit. They're lawyers, so their desks are covered in files relating to the cases they're working on and legal pads. Each of them have large bookshelves filled with law books (the Code of Alabama, for example, and the U.S. Tax Code). Both of them spend much of their time on the phone and in meetings, and drafting documents (my mother drafts by hand; my father uses a dictaphone). Now, the only difference is that they each have a laptop, but neither of them has the laptop on their main desk, and I'd imagine that they each spend much less time online than your average office worker does.
posted by ocherdraco at 11:23 AM on August 13, 2009

When I was in law school, I interviewed with a fairly major law firm that did not have computers in the attorneys' offices. Just word processors. And there was one computer in the law library of the firm for Westlaw searches only. And that was in 2000.
posted by The World Famous at 11:27 AM on August 13, 2009

On the "did you get way more done" point...I entered corporate American in the mid-90s, and I find that things generally took longer then than they do now. Whether it was generating a report, reviewing output, whatever, the tools we have today make things go a lot faster than they did then (for me, at least). So yeah, there was a different kind of "break time" then than there is now, and perhaps even more time is frittered away now than in the past, but I find that more work gets done more quickly based on the technology.
posted by brandman at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I once asked an older friend this question, and she said they spent a lot of time on personal phone calls, or going for walk around the building. Or they would open up files that looked impressive and then sit and stare into space. Or they'd tuck paperbacks inside into large volumes or mixed them in with lots of papers and materials on their desks.
posted by anderjen at 11:32 AM on August 13, 2009

Before the internet, I had a computer on my desk. And yes, we did more. Before the computer was as ubiquitous, I had an adding machine and depending almost entirely on my In/Out box and on the mailroom.

What you may be forgetting is that before the internet was ubiquitous in offices, there was a lot more manual "processing" of information. You didn't shoot off instructions to staff and co-workers throughout the day in random 3 line emails. You wrote one very long memo, your secretary typed it, she copied and circulated it, and you'd spend a lot of your day reading and initialing memos and reports from others. Then you'd have meetings, the result of which would be a memo that was typed and circulated to inboxes, etc.

There was also a lot of phone calling regarding the memos "Is this memo still current?" or "This memo is wrong I never committed to X", etc. Each of those phone calls was prefaced with polite smalltalk about the wife or the awful ball team, etc.

10:30 was coffee break time. 12 or 1pm was lunch, for an hour. 3 pm was coffee break.

So most corporate work was reading and writing memos and reports, and calling on people (on the phone or dropping by) to discuss them or get inputs about them. Now everything is faster, and more piecemeal. I think the downtime people now use the internet for was taken up by more mundane office tasks that the computer and internet have eliminated.

I've been told that legal work has been dramatically altered by the computer and the internet, in that even at top tier firms it used to be a more collegiate atmosphere, more of a profession focused on honing writing and oral communication skills, and less of a corporate money-making business hyperfocused on the billable hours as it is today. I've heard that in that profession particularly, the computer is responsible for driving the billable-to-worked hours ration from roughly 75% to 95-98% (which is common at most large firms).
posted by Pastabagel at 11:32 AM on August 13, 2009 [8 favorites]

People did exactly the same thing they do today: BS'd half the day away. It's just that, back in the day, they had to interact with their coworkers rather than their equally bored friends in distant offices. I know, it sounds like hell AND IT WAS. If you didn't like your coworkers, you were SCREWED.
posted by paanta at 11:34 AM on August 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Oh, and FYI, people still drink in the office. My last boss (2007) had a fully stocked bar in his. The custom is that if you work late (i.e. past 7, a drink with co-workers is not unacceptable.)
posted by Pastabagel at 11:37 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I worked in offices before the Internet and before personal computers. In fact, in my experience, it was rare to find an office in the late 1970s/early 80s that allowed employees to have a small radio at their desks. Music was verboten. Personal phone calls were the main time waster, and if you worked at a very big company it was too complicated and time-consuming for anyone to review the phone bill and see how many long-distance or 976 calls were being made, so lots of my co-workers wasted time by calling dial-a-joke, dial-a-horoscope, etc. On my desk I had a pen/pencil holder, calculator, Page-a-Day calender, steno pad or spiral notebook (for taking notes while on the telephone or in meetings; even though I knew shorthand, I never had to take dictation), in/out mail trays, a cute figuerine or humorous plaque of some sort, telephone, coffee cup, plastic thing that held file folders upright, cork-covered memo cube, stapler, a "While You Were Out" pad, and a little plastic organizer tray with push pins, little memo papers and paper clips. We needed the push pins and corky memo holder thing to stick notes on because Post-Its hadn't yet been invented. (Gawd, I'm old.)
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:38 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I worked at Citibank's corporate offices for a couple years in the mid-90's, when they had just rolled out an internal email system. My coworkers often talked about how great it was to come back from lunch and not have to spend half an hour listening and responding to voicemail messages.

Also, what others above said about everything just taking longer. When people talk about the huge "productivity gains" that accompanied the tech revolution of the 90's, much of it came in automating small,, everyday office tasks.
posted by mkultra at 11:40 AM on August 13, 2009

Had a computer (Macintosh llfx!), built ads when not bullshitting with the best boss ever or co-workers or learning Photoshop 3.0 (OMG, it has layers!)

My then boss use to entertain me with stories from being a designer at a big book publisher. You tried to get as much work done before lunch, 'cause after that, the office was drunk from its two hour, 5 martini lunches. Very Mad Men like, 'cept with the genders on more equal footing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:42 AM on August 13, 2009

Sure, I worked in a an office before the Internet. To be more precise, the Internet was around (I started working for Uncle Sam in 1990) but I didn't have a computer on my desk for another year or so. We shared a Telex terminal to fund contracts, access the mainframe and spend money. We used an IBM electric typewriter and typed things in quad (pink, white, green, original) for four different paper files.

We: Walked around, see sneakernet. People used to smoke, remember that? Talked on the phone. Read the paper. Went to the cafeteria (on my quasi-military base it took 45 minutes round trip). Went to the telecommunications shop, where they sent these new-fangled facsimiles. Etc.
posted by fixedgear at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2009

I worked in an office before the internet, and I was all excited because I was going to get to explain to you that I had an actual Rolodex on my desk. Alas, all I can tell you is that I made probably 30x as many phone calls as I do now. To waste time, I read magazines stuffed in file folders and books stashed in an open telephone book. I also spent time "going to the post office" is walking around town and getting coffee.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:44 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pre-internet, I had a job working for the Department of Mental Health, where I'd type therapists' notes from hand-written copies to official forms. It took a long time, because the forms were carbon copies (in triplicate), so if you made a mistake, you had to re-type the whole thing (no White-Out was allowed, because of the laws on such forms).

Since I was typing all day long, I had the electric typewriter, a pile of forms, another pile of the notes I had to type, a phone (which never rang, because I didn't have a job that required me to get calls, and didn't have an outside line...I had to go to the secretary's desk if I wanted to call someone), and a big stack of large manilla envelopes.

Inbetween forms (which wasn't too often), I'd type letters to my friends, or various short stories.

When I temped at a doctor's office at a large hospital, I was set up in a room that contained exactly: 1 chair, 1 desk with a yellow legal pad, a cup of pens and a radio. I was allowed to listen to the radio and wait for the phone to ring. When it rang (about 3 times per 8 hour shift), I'd take down the caller's information, tell them the doctor would call them back, then hang up, call the doctor's office (it was in another city), and read the message to his assistant on the other line. I was told that I couldn't bring a book, but after a couple of days, I realized that nobody ever came into the office (it was the size of a broom closet, really), so I felt very naughty by bringing in books and magazines. Most of the time, I wrote long-hand letters to friends.
posted by xingcat at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2009

This newspaper ad had to make the Fed-Ex pickup by 5 pm or someone would be driving to the airport again to catch the 7 pm plane.

I remember that. Making PDFs work and being able to FTP where like magic. Oddly enough, deadlines got worse.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2009

Much like the first respondent, when I worked in an office that monitored and blocked 99% of everything worthwhile on the internet, I still had about 4 hours of time a day that was just bsing, listening to music, obsessively reading CNN, working on other stuff, and not because I was slacking - in fact, because I was NOT slacking. I was just DONE. I dont think access to actual internet is any worse. At least I can pass the time more quickly, or I can read about my industry (something I actually voluntarily do) or anything else like, teach myself web design (also something I've dabbled at in work down time).
posted by Medieval Maven at 12:02 PM on August 13, 2009

We had computers, but they weren't connected to much. Fax machines were king and it was the primary way information moved quickly. Even with faxes, most project notes were followed up with letters in the mail with the same information, printed nicely on letterhead.

The computer was for word processing, spreadsheets, and small databases.

Special computers were for things like CAD and other graphically intensive things.

I made a lot of drawings/diagrams on a drafting table with t-square, triangles, etc. that were then turned into drawings in Autocad. Drawings were printer on large plotters but we still made copies via blueprinting. I remember staying to the wee hours makig prints for meetings the next day. Ahh, ammonia!

The typewriter was in daily use to fill out forms and type labels. Laser printing was so expensive!

We photocopied a lot of stuff. It wasn't unusual to work off of copies of someone's handwritten notes.

All the paper lead to a lot of filing of paper into elaborate filing systems.

We used the phone more than we do today, looking up numbers in the yellow pages and company literature, having discussions with sales people rather than reading reviews on the internet.

A huge innovation was the shared network drive. This allowed us to stop walking around with floppy discs.

Another big innovation was the ability to dial in via modem to a company computer to grab a file remotely. This made working off site much easier and less reliant on faxes.

As far as goofing off, there was plenty, but it was more public. Pranks, long lunches, water cooler discussion all happened. Today it's hard to tell if people are working or simply replying to a MeFi post...
posted by Argyle at 12:05 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

To do most things before the internet, more steps and people were involved - mainly due to information being more readily available and easy to transfer now.

The phone would ring, and if the intended victim was out, you took the message by hand on paper. Then, the paper would be transferred to the person's desk. No sending an electronic message. It went the reverse way if you needed to get ahold of someone. Call their office and leave a message if they were not in. Successfully navigating phone tag was quite a game.

If someone needed to send you information, it had to go by mail or other delivery service. No instant info was available.

I work in architecture. Digital files, if they were available, were sent on floppy discs. Yes, really. Most suppliers/vendors did not have digital files available. But, it always took some lead-time if they did have them.

Prior to information being online, you had the opportunity to speak with a technical person or knowledgeable sales rep. It did allow for informal transfer of general information and a greater sense of building connections with other people.

There was no free time - it took longer for things to get done before information was easily available.

When we experienced the dial-up internet revolution (!), only one computer in the office was connected. We'd take turns using it for research. Email was via one office address and really wasn't used until each workstation was eventually connected when high-speed internet was made available.

Now, I usually have time to get all of my work done and take mental breaks too.
posted by mightshould at 12:08 PM on August 13, 2009

I worked for the state of New Jersey last year, and it was easy to envision how my job (law clerk to a group of administrative law judges) would have been done without the computer. Our computers were all Websense'd to uselessness, anyway - we could only get Lexis and Wikipedia. Wikipedia became the popular timewaster among the clerks until that too was dragged into the Websense abyss.

I worked in the library for the administrative courts. All the case reporters I could ever need were in the same room as me. And without anyone to bother me, and no internet to distract me, and no cell phone to interrupt me (we had no reception inside the building) I did a decent amount of work. But not a ton, and no more than I would have accomplished with any of those things around.

In the long afternoons of having nothing to do but read cases and internal memos, I did a lot of sleeping. My fellow clerk and I regularly had to rouse each other from a legal-research-induced coma. Legal research is a lonely, boring job that will put you to sleep. And with nothing to mentally stimulate you - a crossword, sudoku, a webcomic, MetaFilter, etc. - you just drift off. And that was with a LOT of coffee.

But here's my take on it: people will increase their productivity until they can't anymore. If you find yourself playing around all day, that's because you haven't been given enough to do. I was assigned one memo a week to write. I could have handled two, and that would have kept me busy. Three might have been manageable, but I would have had to work some evenings. But in general, if you give me enough work to do, I don't feel as though I have to check Facebook every two minutes. If I don't have enough to do, I'll attempt to make my work stretch out - making it last by taking a nap, writing wordy answers on AskMetafilter, or by engaging in witty banter on Facebook or Twitter.
posted by greekphilosophy at 12:14 PM on August 13, 2009

I was all excited because I was going to get to explain to you that I had an actual Rolodex on my desk.

The funny thing about Rolodexes is people still say them to mean "set of contacts", as in "oh, yeah, he's got a golden Rolodex" or "I mean, they just hired her for her Rolodex, but it was worth it." I found one in a pile of office junk that was headed for the garbage a couple years ago and I thought it would be funny to put it on my desk and use it. One of the guys I worked with was like "what is that?" and I was like "when you say 'golden Rolodex', you mean golden one of these." So I tried to put a bunch of cards in it and use it, but that joke got old fast, also, I never call anyone. So I tossed it. Goodbye Rolodex. I wonder how long you will survive in the office lexicon, now that you are no longer physically relevant.
posted by jeb at 12:35 PM on August 13, 2009

This newspaper ad had to make the Fed-Ex pickup by 5 pm or someone would be driving to the airport again to catch the 7 pm plane.

I remember that. Making PDFs work and being able to FTP where like magic. Oddly enough, deadlines got worse.

Even better, you had drive four hours up to the printers in Nowhere, Conn. And if you didn't get there on time, you'd have to stay overnight to pick up the papers yourself so they'd get back to your town on time. If you were putting out two papers, people from each town had to be on standby if you ran past your deadline. Which you always did.

I never worked in an office without a computer, but we didn't have easy access to the Internet for about four years (late nineties, early 2000s). We played a lot of Solitaire and Hearts in downtime. My boss for a few of those years had all sorts of toys on his desk. The usual stupid executive office toys that looked pretty but were really annoying: remember the silver one with the line of balls that you'd click end to end? Minesweeper. Never forget Minesweeper.

I remember one summer, I was writing press releases -- this was after my first newspaper job but before I committed myself to the profession. I shared an office with another college kid, and we'd just spend our days on the phone and playing Windows games. (But yes, we got a lot of work done, too.) My boss would come in and tell us about how in some offices, they were removing games from the computers. And then he'd eventually say he thought having a few games was a good thing, because he knew people had to have downtime.

I always worked in newspaper or political offices, so even when there was an internet, it was really only a tool for research. And secret job-hunting. And, okay, you have to read the industry blogs, too, right? But no, for awhile I wasn't playing Flash games at all. You never have time to play Flash games at a small newspaper.

We were very old-school. Folks would drop by the office. The amount of time I spent just gossiping with local Republicans or Democrats or just crotchety old men who liked to make a fuss at town meetings -- that was what got me the good stories. These guys would pop in a few times a week, and we'd talk for hours. (Usually on Fridays or Saturdays.) Some guy with seriously racist attitudes would be like, "And they want to open a center for all the illegal immigrants! On Main Street! Right where the senior center is now! Can you believe it?" Smile sweetly, nod your head, and go interview those immigrants and the people who are starting the center. And the other crotchety, slightly racist old folks.
posted by brina at 12:37 PM on August 13, 2009

In the late 80s, I worked at a bank as a Word Processor, back when that was a job title rather than a piece of software. I used a dedicated word processor, not a PC. The thing was obsolete even then. It used 8" floppies and didn't have spell check -- instead, we would proofread each others' documents.

I then worked at a publisher where we all had PCs on our desk, but they were only connected to a local network, not to anything outside the building. There was no email, so I would quite often prepare a memo or something on my computer, print it out, fax it, and then file the hard copy.

By the mid 90s, I had email at work, but no web access. It was not uncommon to use work email addresses for personal correspondence, or to subscribe to newsgroups (remember them?)
About the same time, my work computer was upgraded to one with a CD drive (read-only) - which I used about 95% of the time to play music.
posted by zombiedance at 1:05 PM on August 13, 2009

We faxed a lot. We also used telex for overseas stuff.
I made a ton more phone calls.
Many more meetings. We'd have weekly company meetings to discuss and update calendars, then several status meetings with our bosses (no teams!) to keep everything up to date.

We had terminals into the mainframe for data entry and a couple of computers for lotus and printing those newfangled barcode labels. If you needed to print anything and make it look professional, you either typed it or you printed it on the daisywheel printer.

Updating our MRP data over the 32k ISDN line took all night and would print about 300 pages of greenbar (with carbons) every Tuesday morning. My job was to distribute the appropriate pieces of greenbar report to the appropriate people.

We didn't take smoke breaks because of the hubcap sized ashtrays on our desks. That was a timesaver alright.

I had lots of stamps for dates received/entered/paid, etc, lots of forms to type on a typewriter.
UPS was handled by a book. You wrote all your shipments in it, stuck the tracking number sticker on the pages, and the UPS guy ripped the second copy of the page out.
Labels were typed or handwritten.
posted by disclaimer at 1:11 PM on August 13, 2009

God this thread makes me feel old. I started working in offices in the late 80s and I'm pretty sure I spent a lot of time in the copy room. I also wrote a lot of lists and snuck glances at books and magazines. I now work in a rather large public institution and there's still a lot of memo-writing and inter-office mail, which feels extremely archaic to me now but I'm sure there are other places where this is still the norm, too.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 1:21 PM on August 13, 2009

and would print about 300 pages of greenbar (with carbons) every Tuesday morning

I have no idea what that means but I like how jargony it sounds. That's like something people with crew cuts and hornrimmed glasses who smoke camel unfiltereds and know how to use slide rules would say. "Goddamn it, Johnson! Didn't I tell you not to leave 300 pages of greenbar on my desk! AND WITH CARBONS AT THAT! You'd forget your ass if it wasn't screwed on to your legs!"

Also, to other people reading @disclaimer's comment who didn't know what "Telex" was: its some sort of old communications network where you had a keyboard/printer combination and you could send text messages to other people's printers...At the rate of 45.45 baud. This is apparently how telegrams were sent.
posted by jeb at 1:30 PM on August 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

It was somewhat novel in the early 80s, in a push-back kind of way, to have a "Thank you for not smoking" sign on your desk.

For proposal writing, we shared a Macintosh Plus (it had its own desk, and you took your 3.5" floppies over to use it) with a 20 MB hard disk that we thought at the time we would never fill up--all that space!
posted by apartment dweller at 2:02 PM on August 13, 2009

I've never really had an office job pre-Internet, because my first one was my library clerk gig at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which went from the fall of 1990 to the summer of 1993 (in other words, around the time that Andreessen and Bina were writing Mosaic a few blocks away from us); we had Internet access in my office, and in fact I spent a lot of quality time with Usenet (particularly alt.peeves, alt.angst, and alt.tasteless) on my own time. But I wouldn't have gotten away with doing that during work time, because there simply wasn't enough of my work that took place on that computer (mostly just the monthly new acquisitions newsletter) and it was on a small table behind my desk so that I had my back turned to the room when I used it; besides, it was an underpowered dual disc drive PS/2 that wasn't much fun for games anyway.

I did a lot of typing, filing and sorting. We had an online catalog but we often worked with paper records that were either handwritten or printed off from the catalog. I spent a lot of time tracking down missing books and withdrawing them only after doing a thorough search for them, which meant that I could go explore the huuuuuuuuge main stacks periodically. Also lots of time installing security strips in the spines of our collection, also lots of times on the desk which I spent either doing other work or exploring the catalog, which confirmed to me that this was what I really wanted to do with my life. The typing occasionally involved the Selectric which was shared, and which also occasionally involved multipart carbonless forms that had to be babied through just so because they were so thick and would creep out of alignment after a few turns of the platen.

And what did I have on my desk? A few different projects at any given time, and the space to work on them. It was easier to sort, collate and compare documents with empty desk real estate. In fact, I sometimes prefer working with paper to working on my computer still, just because it's so damn easy to get distracted by the electronic teat.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:03 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, to other people reading @disclaimer's comment who didn't know what "Telex" was: its some sort of old communications network where you had a keyboard/printer combination and you could send text messages to other people's printers...At the rate of 45.45 baud. This is apparently how telegrams were sent.

My very first job (at age 16) was operating a Telex machine for a large international company. It looked and sounded like the standard teletype machine you see in newsrooms inolder TV shows and movies with an AP "wire." The keyboard consisted of three rows of keys, and the numerals and symbols were on the same keys as the letters. Instead of a "shift" key, if you wanted to type a numeral or symbol, you had to first hit a key that said FIGS ("figures"). To return to typing regular text, you had to then hit the LTRS key. There was no monitor screen; your text typed out directly onto a paper roll. Your message also simultaneously punched out onto a narrow strip of paper tape as you typed. The paper tape is where you had the power to backspace and correct errors. However, the backspacing didn't show up on your paper hard copy; all typing appeared as continuous text. It could get confusing if you really didn't know what you were doing. The telex machine at most companies was always installed in some remote small room (ours was in the same room that housed the telephone switching equipment, with the mailroom off to the side) because it was so noisy - CHUNKA CHUNKA CHUNKA when it printed.

When you were ready to send your message, you inserted the paper tape into a "reader" (which transmitted at, I believe, 50 baud). There was a telephone dial on the machine (even though the machine was connected to a special Western Union line and not a telephone line), and you simply dialed the telex number directly for domestic telexes. For international messages, you had to use a service such as Western Union, ITT, FTCC or RCA - you'd dial the carrier number, then type in the recipient's country code and telex number and wait to be connected. In both cases, domestic and international, messages were sent in "real time" - as your message printed out on your terminal, it was simultaneously printing out at the remote terminal. Indeed, if the operators at both ends were at their terminals, they could communicate with one another - sort of like an Instant Message, but with words typed on on paper in all caps, all the time. There was a "bell" key you could press that would ring a bell sound at the other end in order to get the attention of the operator. I often had to make overseas hotel reservations for executives by communicating in real time with the telex operators at hotels (despite the time difference, most deluxe hotels had operators at the telex 24/7, as telexing was MUCH cheaper than international phone calls at the time.) There were all sorts of special "rules" to remember when typing up a telex - a string of five consecutive Ms or periods was an automatic disconnect signal, you could not send certain symbols ($, &, # were a few) overseas, as they wouldn't "translate" and would instead cause the remote machine to start typing gibberish.

Telex machines were used to send telegrams, true, but not directly. You had to type up your message using a very specific format and introductory code which let Western Union know that the following message was to be converted into a telegram. Once you sent your message to the special WU number, WU would either phone it to the recipient and mail a hard copy, or hand-deliver it for an extra charge. And that's probably more than anyone wanted to know about Telex, but it sure took me down memory lane.....
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:31 PM on August 13, 2009 [16 favorites]

I tell teenagers now how back in my day we laid out our newspaper on special graph paper with scissors and glue and they look at me like I'm telling them we nailed babies to crosses to create newsprint, the idea is so foreign to them.

Then I tell them the stories from above about yep, racing to get the physical copy to a physical printer who laid the whole thing out all over again actual, physical type and screened all the images and their eyeballs start to invert.

There is a special fluidity to the modern press process that is admirable, but man, it's just not the same.

Also, I miss the smell of telex tape.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:38 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just like to say this is a fascinating thread. I joined the office life style last year, and am fascinated how anything got done in large organisations before email.
posted by greytape at 2:49 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

There was a "bell" key you could press that would ring a bell sound at the other end in order to get the attention of the operator.

This also answers the question of why the hell ASCII and terminal emulators still have a "bell" character!

I tell teenagers now how back in my day we laid out our newspaper on special graph paper with scissors and glue and they look at me like I'm telling them we nailed babies to crosses to create newsprint, the idea is so foreign to them.

I have heard this before, and someone told me this is why rubber cement really exists. Thats how people attached stuff to the graph paper. Similar to the rolodex thing, though, this explains why people some people say "paste up" when they are referring to temporary layouts of things. I still honestly don't get how this worked though, like...how did people deal with flowing the text from column to column? Also, what if things didn't really fit? There's no scale tool to make a pic slightly bigger or smaller, or a pull quote (I've never worked on a newspaper, but when I worked on my school paper thats what we did as we finished up every issue: tweak art and pull quote sizes to make all the pages fill out right).
posted by jeb at 2:50 PM on August 13, 2009

basically all their work takes place standing around and BSing


Naturally the work:BS ratio would differ from profession to profession and office to office, and from staff level to staff level. Bosses could always do more BSing, but then secretaries and assistants often had large blocks of unsupervised down time. Office work, you see, was generally not measured except in terms of end-of-year profits. Staff were more like a resource ready to spring into action when needed.

If you did a lot of public-facing work, BSing was called schmoozing. This is probably specific to advertising, but when I worked at a major agency in the 1980s, "the client" (anywhere from 2 to 6 people) would come in once a week on average, which time was productively spent on a two-hour meeting, long three-martini lunches, and some sort of gallivanting around Manhattan such as an expensive dinner at which work was, heh heh, discussed, making it tax-deductible.

what's the point of even having a desk?

For managers and sales or public-facing jobs, to have something between you and the client, which is occasionally used to sign something. Pencil cup, photos of family, inbox (preferably empty). Ashtray. Candies. Business cards, and for the lower echelons, a name plate.

The lucky ones worked in a bullpen with other peers. As long as you all did roughly the same amount of work you could joke around, toss crumpled-up papers at each other, "stretch" by walking around, and so forth.
posted by dhartung at 3:08 PM on August 13, 2009

I worked in an office in the early 90s. A lot of my work was just the physical transfer of paper from one place to another, the sorting of paper, the readying of new paper, etcetera. My desk was a place to keep paper, and things one used with paper -- clips, labels, staples, folders. I made telephone calls for other people, invariably to inquire after...paper.

Down time was a lot of chatting with co-workers at the coffee pot. I also wrote letters, read stuff, and went out to get food. And cigarette breaks.
posted by kmennie at 3:34 PM on August 13, 2009

But either way, what the hell did people do in offices before the internet?

I made zines and copied them at work (which I feel terribly guilty about now).
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:10 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

jebPoster: "I have heard this before, and someone told me this is why rubber cement really exists. Thats how people attached stuff to the graph paper. "

Except for us fancy people, who used waxers.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:11 PM on August 13, 2009

Except for us fancy people, who used waxers.

Ahh, thanks for that comment, as it led me to this.
posted by limeonaire at 4:28 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I worked at an office on campus in the mid-90s and asked one of the secretaries who had been there since the late 70s what it was like before computers. She said "we didn't have the internet to mess around on, but everything took a lot more time to do manually."

I suspect a lot of jobs haven't changed much since then, in that you have to get x amount of work done daily, but the amount of time that work now takes thanks to computers and the internet is substantially less.
posted by Kellydamnit at 4:46 PM on August 13, 2009

When I worked at a call center for Disney in California, only special people could access the real Internet on their computers, so I explored the hell out of the Intranet, read trashy romance novels and non-trashy graphic novels, wrote fanfic and letters in Notepad, and tried to time my lunch just so I could watch "One Life to Live" on the TV in the breakroom with some of the other ladies because non-coincidentally ABC was the only channel that TV seemed to get.

Now that my official job title is "Research Assistant" and one of my self-appointed duties is to research the hell out of direct buyers, I'm only limited by OpenDNS on what and where I can visit on the 'net. Luckily, the IT guys love me and if I can make a case for unlocking a specific site, they'll open it up for me right away.

Productivity-wise, I'm workaholic enough that the time I spend being sucked into MeFi or MeCha or Facebook or whatever is paid back at the end of the day when more sane people have gone home.
posted by TrishaLynn at 5:01 PM on August 13, 2009

Had a computer. Wrote stuff for roleplaying campaigns, played Nethack, stared into space. A lot. Taught myself VB and Access.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:49 PM on August 13, 2009

jeb: I still honestly don't get how this worked though, like...how did people deal with flowing the text from column to column? Also, what if things didn't really fit?

You typed the whole article out in a column that was whatever it was, three inches wide. (You could set the width manually on a typewriter, and later on whatever the hell monolithic computer programs we were using - I think PFS Professional Write was the thing then.) Then you printed it out, and if it ran to more than one page, you carefully taped it together into one continuous long column.

Then you folded it. Normally we would sketch out the layouts we had planned on the graph paper in advance in pencil, estimating the length of each article. So if your article was going to require five 3-inch-wide columns laid out next to each other horizontally, you more or less folded it into 5ths, cut, and pasted.

We would block out boxes for photos in the layout, marked by a large X (which is why blank image boxes in your layout program of choice probably mark them with an X today.) The printers all had to halftone screen the images, and could resize them to fit the box. To make sure our photos would scale to the layout dimensions correctly, we used calculators and geometry :)

The thing that is hilarious about this to me is that I'm only 37.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:40 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I remember visiting my mom's office in the 70s, she didn't have a typewriter because managers didn't type back then. She actually knew how to type but would never admit it since that was secretary's work and she felt that as a women, it would be a retreat for her to be typing. She wrote everything longhand and then the office secretary would type it up letters with carbon paper so that one copy could be filed. They had a copier but it was expensive to use so they used a big mimeograph drum printer to print up fliers. There was no voice mail, if you weren't in the office, the receptionist took your messages and wrote one of those "while you were out" notes.

There was a lot of chatting, coffee breaks, long lunches, drinks with lunch, etc. Lots of birthday parties, holiday parties, team outings, etc. And smoking, she actually worked in healthcare but most of her office smoked and no one went outside to smoke.
posted by octothorpe at 7:09 PM on August 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I was an intern at a record company office in the late 80's - I had to make fliers promoting bands, and you know how I did it?

I typed words onto paper, and spent long half-hours blowing them up on the copier. Then I cut images out of magazines, glued them to paper, and photocopied THOSE. They weren't professional in any way (I was not a graphics person) but they were cute. And they took a long time to do.

I remember one of my first fulltime office jobs in the early nineties - we had computers, and interoffice email, but that was that. I remember the day that I realized I could email people OUTSIDE the building, and that was the day my workplace productivity ended. I subscribed to a local music mailing list and was called in to the principal's office the day I got 200 messages in my inbox!
posted by pinky at 7:39 PM on August 13, 2009

I've had a PC on my desk since the early 80s - first a Motorola Exorset development system with a 6809, dual floppies and a PROM burner card, then a 3270 PC. We had one of the original Compaqs to take on trips - that thing was horrible to carry through an airport - it weighed a ton. Laptops replaced the 3270 PCs in the late 80s - Compaq SLTs. We still had a secretary for our group to type and take messages at that point.
posted by rfs at 8:05 PM on August 13, 2009

I worked in an office way before the internet - my first office job was in 1975. There was no such thing as a fax (I'd been taught about these things called 'facsimile transceivers' at secretarial school, but we were told that the only things they'd ever be used for would be by international law enforcement agencies to trace criminals around the world.) We sent Telexes, and the Telex operator sat in a room with this huge machine that fed tapes through it. Telexes came out in upper case with dodgy punctuation.

Things took much longer. If a paragraph had to be added to a document, it had to be re-typed. We had a 'wet' photocopier, where the copies had to be pinned up on a little line to dry because if you touched them, they smudged. We used a Banda machine for bulk copying, but of course the template had to be typed first on the weird, purple paper.

People talked far more than they do now. I worked with two naggy, shrewy, gossipy old women for five years and it was horrible. They were total bitches. I managed to find a few kindred spirits though.

In the mid-80s I worked for a big law firm in London that was state-of-the-art - it had Wang word processors. There were a few games that you could play when you weren't busy - although Space Invaders wasn't a sensible choice because everyone knew you were playing it - hitting a single key over and over is a dead giveaway that you're not working. Plus you'd soon need a new keyboard where you'd broken the 'X' key on yours.

The best game to play was a role-playing game (all done in text, no visuals) where you had to explore a cave and pick up and use things along the way. Because you were typing 'Pick up bottle', etc. it looked as if you were working.

One of the things I do recall about the days before instant electronic communication was that things were more relaxed. Because there was no way of instantly sending back a document with amendments - it had to go through the post or by DX or courier - the alterations had to wait until it physically arrived on the secretary's desk. There was none of this "I want it NOW!" because people knew they had to wait.
posted by essexjan at 12:05 AM on August 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

@disclaimer's who didn't know what "Telex" was: I can confuse you further. I have boxes...boxes of punch cards and two huge mainframe motherboards in my garage. Yeah...I don't know what I'm going to do with them either.

Also Rolodex: Still have mine. Don't use it, but it's got too many handwritten cards from people I used to know, or friends who have crossed into the Great Blue Yonder...it's sentimental, but I like it.

Desk before IT: Pre MS revolutionizing the world by making PCs ubiquitous, I had a typewriter, and a phone, and I don't remember a lot of goofing off, but I was young enough that I was still earnest and optimistic.

Desk with computer/pre internet, I did most of my business over the phone when in the states, but I got to travel all the time because it was difficult to manage European operations from the States back then. I was always off to London and Paris and Amsterdam and Berlin and just travel, travel, travel. I miss that. And expense accounts. I *really* miss that.
posted by dejah420 at 12:29 AM on August 14, 2009

There's a difference between a job with a computer and no Internet access, and a job with no computer at all. At my first job, I had a computer but no Internet access at all. I also had a private office. I definitely did not get more done, but then again I wasn't being given much work. I played solitaire, brought in stuff to read on a floppy disk or USB stick (saved Web pages, eBooks, etc.), watched DVDs (thanks, Netflix!), and spent a lot of time lounging in the office of my friend across the hall, chatting about nothing.

Later, I transferred to a different role in the same company and was granted Internet access. I still had a private office. I was also being given a lot more work. My productivity shot through the roof.
posted by transporter accident amy at 12:50 AM on August 14, 2009

Most of the offices I worked in actively discouraged any kind of goofing off. Only the managers seemed to get away with it. What was on the desk? How about a comptometer before calculators and adding machines, dial telephones with buttons with line sharing, lots and lots of paper and either pencils, pens with ink or really bad ballpoint pens.

If you wanted an internal document copied, the one secretary in the office who could do so, cut a stencil and ran the copies on the mimeograph which turned out purplish pink copies. There was a crude version of a photocopier which used some kind of special paper that was a sandwich of paper/pink page of developer?/rice paper, also run by the one secretary who could work the machine. A similar machine made copies of lettersized slides. All of these stunk!

There was an early version of a fax machine that you put the letter in. You wrapped the letter around the drum, set the sensor at the start of the letter, called the number of the machine on the receiving end, then let it rip. If not this, then the message went to the Telex operator who would send it when she had time as she was always busy.

If you needed a graph for a presentation, you drew and cut the shapes from film and stuck the film and lettraset letters/numbers to the 8-1/2x11 sheet of acetate for the flatbed overhead projector. If you needed a brochure printed, it took weeks back and forth to the printer approving mock-ups and drafts. Heaven forbid someone wanted a change half way through the process.

Interest on your bank account was calculated by hand using tables. Every transaction on your bank account was posted using a posting machine that printed onto your account's card. (The banking stuff is mainframe.)

There was a real division between secretaries that took shorthand and those who only did dicta, shorthand where I was being more special. No one over a certain rank ever typed anything. Our office tried a centralized dictation/secretarial pool with everyone dictating to one location. I felt sorry for the typists as most people had no idea how to dictate so someone could transcribe it. The early word processor we had was the most complicated piece of gear I've ever tried to use. You couldn't see what you'd just typed, but had to print it out first. And, it had more codes and special keys than anything. Glad I never had to use one for real and just got to try it out. It was a nighmare and lasted about 6 months.

Then there were the banks of filing cabinets, whole rooms full of them as everyone kept all their paperwork forever. We used them as dividers in open plan offices. There was no such thing as electronic backup. After a time, filing cabinets would be emptied into storage boxes and sent to the basement. Retrieval was painful.

The best thing was telephone messages: no email nagging, no voicemail tag. We had a receptionist who did nothing but answer the telephones, write messages on pink notes, and stuff them into a bank of slots for us to pick up. Sometimes she'd chase people down, waving a handful of messages.

People had to talk to each other then in order to get things done. Now, not so much.
posted by x46 at 1:06 AM on August 14, 2009

I was working as a Unix operator in an office in the middle of nowhere where we were literally by ourselves for long periods of time waiting for stuff to happen....

I read a lot of Unix man pages and played around with scripts a lot. Also drank a lot of coffee. And we talked among ourselves.

On night shift, played whatever Unix games were available, e.g. Hunt the Wumpus.

Made personal phone calls.

Good times.
posted by plep at 6:34 AM on August 14, 2009

Oh, and explore the building as well.

Also read newspapers, and books when it was really quiet....
posted by plep at 6:35 AM on August 14, 2009

(Sidenote - writing documentation for the entire system in vi was interesting as well).
posted by plep at 6:37 AM on August 14, 2009

Well this has been really enlightening. Thanks everyone for your answers. They're all good, consider them all marked best answer.
posted by jeb at 7:30 AM on August 14, 2009

"But either way, what the hell did people do in offices before the internet?"

Where I worked, in 1971, we had the tubes. No, really. Real tubes. As in, a pneumatically operated, automatic document delivery system.

It was a big building, with a large executive office suite at one end, a manufacturing plant of about 80,000 sq. ft. in the middle, and engineering offices, chemical lab, stockroom, and test/customer demonstration area past the manufacturing plant. So, sometime in the late 1950's, they put in the kind of pneumatic tube system you sometimes still see in branch bank drive thru windows.

Most of what we manufactured there was very short run style tooling for shoe machinery, and it was heavily dependent on drawings and customer documents. So, there were constant conversations between the Sales department in the executive wing, the manufacturing floor, and the engineering department where the designers and draughtsmen worked, and where drawings were done and archived. Accordingly, there were always sketches, drawings, and memos in circulation, on the tubes, and it saved some walking. But it did take some getting used to, and you still wound up walking to a floor station to put your documents in a container, and send them to the mailroom, where they'd be hand fed to their destination, usually on another pneumatic tube. So, this all led to some interesting phone conversations, too.

Somewhere along the line, the phrase "blow me" had entered the company vernacular, as a shorthand for "send me a copy of what you have via the pneumatic tubes." That was also a signal to the party on the other end to go wait for the delivery at his floor's tube station, if he wanted it right away (well, within the couple of minutes it took to traverse the system, what with some mail room operator delay). If you just told someone to send you something, it could mean just put it in the inter-office mail, which went around twice a day on the mail carts. You did that with sample parts, and other physical items too big or too heavy for the tube system.

So, if you were up in the executive suite, you'd frequently overhear one side of a conversation where Sales was talking to someone in Engineering about some customer request, and it would abruptly end "Fine. Blow me." and then the Sales end of the conversation would hang up his phone and saunter off to the pneumatic station on his floor, to await the arrival of a drawing from Engineering, that would explain what Engineering's view of the problem was. And conversely, if you were down in Engineering, where the documents were maintained and archived, you'd hear constant requests for customer correspondence, sketches, specs and such, as "Yeah, we need that, before we can release shop drawings. Blow me." Or, "If you wanted this yesterday, you should have blown me yesterday."

It did occasionally create startled looks on the faces of visitors.
posted by paulsc at 8:55 AM on August 14, 2009 [21 favorites]

My main office-y job before the internet was at a newspaper. Even then, though, we had messaging abilities at our workstations (internal only) and could read the wire services. So both of those were big timekillers. But when we weren't doing that, we did do our work. I do tend to think that people without internet access are still more productive - they simply don't have an anti-boredom machine in front of them, so eventually they run out of distracting things to screw around with and get down to brass tacks.

The things I remember doing to fill time are mostly covered here. Like a lot of others, I wrote a tremendous number of letters to friends - seems amazing, but there were years where on average I wrote at least one personal letter a day, and sent it through the mail. Doing layout, cartoons, posters, etc, as scody mentioned, also took up some time. I read the paper in full every day, all sections, including ads, and I did that because I could get away with it on work time. I also read other papers, as we subscribed to the competition too, and newsmagazines, all in the name of work. There were many more meetings, because essentially you had to meet for every purpose requiring multiple viewpoints in communication. There was a fuzzy settling-in time early in the morning, say between 9 and 9:30 - people checked phone messages, but there wasn't that hour for scanning all your electronic communications that many people start the day with now. Folks eased in to the workday. Also, after about 4:20 or so, nothing much serious got done. People dawdled over filing and conversed lazily on the phone, winding the day down. The thing is, when I visit newspaper offices today I don't feel they've changed much. Layout doesn't smell like vinegar any more, and there's no (concrete) spike box to turn in your copy and not much other paper, but reporters and writers and photographers haven't changed. They mostly screw off by talking about current events and people in the city/town, which can always look a little purposeful, even though they'd do it whether they were at work or not. Beat reporters always have the advantage of wandering around out in the world, too.

But I can recall my dad's office, at a simulator manufacturer, even when I was a little kid, and he and his electronics-engineering cohort had goofing around down to a fine art. The guys there played "Dungeon" and "Adventure," the prototype game apps (then handed around through basically the folk process) that became "Zork." They used their drafting equipment to draw elaborate posters such as recreated R. Crumb cartoons and Grateful Dead album covers. They tried to solve puzzles collectively - word and logic puzzles - that someone would bring in and pass around the group. They played pranks on one another like secretly moving items on someone's desk a small amount to the left every day. They used their machinery to create unoffical cool engraved signs and things made out of circuit boards. They made nifty critters out of bright-colored telephone wire. They engineered handy things like home boxes for ripping off cable TV or synchronize your Christmas tree and house lights with one switch. Stuff like that.
posted by Miko at 1:30 PM on August 14, 2009

explore the building when quiet.

Oh, yeah. For one year I worked overnights as the city desk clerk - my job was basically to be there in case something happened. I had a few other responsibilities but I could take care of those in about two hours of an eight-hour shift, midnight to 8 AM. So a lot of the time I would just walk the empty halls, read the cartoons and sayings in people's cubicles, check out design and copywriting books on department shelves, browse through the 'morgue' and working files, etc.
posted by Miko at 1:33 PM on August 14, 2009

paulsc: Where I worked, in 1971, we had the tubes. No, really. Real tubes. As in, a pneumatically operated, automatic document delivery system.

And this, kids, is why we nicknamed this grand paradise the intertubes or interpipes. You know, back before you were born.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:55 PM on August 14, 2009

Also, I would like to just: that pnumatic tube system? My grandparents had that in their house. It was awesome. And in case you were wondering: by ignoring the cannisters and dropping object directly into the tubes: yes you can deliver a lemon from one end to the other. A turtle, not so much.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:02 PM on August 14, 2009 [10 favorites]

A lot has changed in the last couple decades. I cut and pasted, I mean literally, the college paper in the early 90s - we switched over to Quark sometime during my time (I finished '95) but plenty of printers still took hard copies, and you certainly couldn't send files by internet (I remember using zip disks when I worked in the industry but I don't think those were out yet when I was in school). A lot of zines and personal projects I did in the mid 90s were still old fashioned cut and paste because it still seemed easier - computer stuff was slow, files a pain to transfer, and a lot of the equipment was expensive or hard to get your hands on (a good scanner, versus velox or just photocopying)

As for office work, I worked as an admin and project manager while in school, and I remember doing a lot of filing. Also, a fair amount of typing, since bosses did not type. Now everyone types, because they have laptops, but back then typing was only for underlings, so bosses would give you handwritten or voice recorded things to type up. I also remember a lot of busy work being created for me, organizing piles that were later reorganized, kind of thing. And lots of answering phones to take memos which could now be handled by direct email. I did also send a lot of snail mail back then thru my job, and some of it was surely written while in the office...

Do people say "around the water cooler" anymore? Referring to office gossip that you pick up when you go to get water... so, yes, lots of standing around talking.
posted by mdn at 7:42 PM on August 14, 2009

I had a desk with a selectric typewriter. We did a lot of typing and files on projects. I was always busy for several hours then there was always time to bs when the boss wasn't around. Phone calls to other divisions were constant to give updates. When computers came it was a lot easier to coordinate projects.
Before computers I did a lot of work on teletypes for inventory purposes:that was annoying because you always had paper jams.
posted by Upon Further Review at 10:55 AM on August 15, 2009

thanks, everyone, for sharing. this 30yo who has never ever worked somewhere without internet (although where I work now, we goof off maybe 10 min a day) has found it fascinating.
posted by fishfucker at 6:39 PM on August 15, 2009

Oh! And typewriter art, mustn't forget that.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:30 AM on August 16, 2009

My first job out of college was as in a buyer training program for a large department store chain - I was the assistant buyer for men's sportcoats, dress slacks, and outerwear. In the office next door to us, just off the selling floor of our flagship store, was the men's tailored clothing guys - the suits office. Between myself, the associate buyer, and our boss, the buyer, and our counterparts in the next office, there were usually about 5-6 of us hanging around at any given time. We had internet but it was pretty limited, so I guess we were kind of at the turning point of an era, of sorts (disclaimer: I've told this story before, but it fits alright here too).

I had one of those small nerf-like balls on my desk, painted like a globe with an Arthur Andersen logo on it - something they had been handing out at the career fair in college. My boss used to like to pick it up when I wasn't looking and then hurtle it at the back of my head when I was on the phone. He found immense pleasure in this. I'm a quick learner of course, so I'd begin to watch closely for when he had stolen it, and then I'd pretend to get on the phone and watch him out of the corner of my eye, and try to catch the ball when he threw it, in the ultimate act of defiance. This quickly morphed into the game we called, quite simply:


The rules developed quickly, Globe was something that seemed to have a mind of its own. The thrower had to make a throw that was deemed "catch-able." A bad throw would be one that hit the ground, ceiling, wall, or something else that impeded the catcher from making a fair catch. Other than that, Globe could be whipped across the office as fast as the thrower could possibly manage, as long as the catcher had fair opportunity to catch it. Angled or "bounced" shots were the next thing we added - the intentional use of the ceiling, wall, desks, etc., with the same end result - a ball catch-able within near proximity to where the catcher was sitting. Back and forth across the office we would zip this ball at each other, counting points, usually to 5 - you got a point as the thrower for each time you could throw a fair Globe that was not caught. Win by 2. There was lots of pause for argument over interpretation of the rules, but I think this might have been more the point of the game itself, in the end.

Of course, it didn't take long for the guys next door in the suits department to get wind of what was going on, when they heard us, through the wall that separated the two offices, yelling at each other in the middle of the workday. Their door-way observation quickly turned into full blown participation. The game quickly migrated to the new playing field of the suits office next door, which had more space, and a whole wall full of racks of suits against which the dreaded "drop shot" could be thrown - you'd aim a Globe into the higher row of suits and it would drop down through the fabrics as opposed to a normal bounce off the wall. It became clear that whoever was positioned against the sample wall was at a significant disadvantage, and so the concept of rotation was introduced to Globe. The Globe could be whipped at any member in play, until a point was made by someone, and then everyone rotated positions clockwise for the next round. Because you could throw it at anyone, trick shots became key - you'd fake a throw at someone and then underhand it at an unexpected victim in another direction. Being able to pick up on the fake throw became a significant badge of honor in the game of Globe.

We began keeping stats on the associate buyer's desk in the suits office. He had one of those big flat desk calendars, that was usually covered with paperwork, so the stats were conveniently hidden by his regular work.

Such was the case one Friday afternoon when work was slow, that we had been playing since lunch for probably 2 or 3 hours. Globe involved significant quick reflexes, diving and jumping for catches, and throwing as hard as one can, so the 6 or so of us had our sleeves rolled up, our collars loosened, and our ties thrown back over our shoulders. Every forehead gleamed with sweat and determination. My boss, in the position across the room from me - in the dreaded suit rack position, winged a low, rising shot at me, surprising me as the typical threat in that position was the high, dropping shot. It was one of those things you remember acutely because your brain processed it in slow motion. Globe made a bee-line for my groin and beat my hands to its intended target.

The guys would forever come to refer to it as "The Shot Heard Round The World." They say it lifted me off the ground and into the sample racks, after which I crumpled straight to the ground, whimpering. I don't remember much after watching the blue blur disappear into the front of my pants, but the next thing I do remember, my colleagues were gathered around me, half stifling their laughter and half trying to fake concern for me.

And that was the moment at which our boss, the divisional manager, made an unexpected visit to the office to drop off some financial plans or some such work. He looked around the room at half a dozen sweaty executives, one writing in pain and clutching his crotch, tossed the file folder on someone's desk. He stood for a second longer, then smiled his slight, knowing, half-smile and said "I don't want to know." And then he left.

We were more careful after that day, Globe had to be regulated, it had to be safe. A game could never be initiated unless it was by one of the bosses, either mine or the suits office buyer. It was always initiated by a simple phonecall, with only two simple words spoken after the phone was answered: "Gentlemen...Globe?"
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:36 AM on August 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

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