Looking Back


Business Letters


Step back from your computer and imagine a world where all office-related functions were done by hand, and every document was unique, produced one at a time, and stored physically beside your desk.


Onoway Museum
                          office displayWorking in an office 50 years ago was a completely different world than it is today. The "office" in the Onoway Museum gives a hint of what it might have been like. Start with a wooden desk (not necessarily oak), a wooden padded chair (if you were lucky) and a wooden filing cabinet. If you were the boss, there was probably a large pedestal ashtray right there beside the desk.


Business correspondence was typed on a manual typewriter. White bond paper was used and to make copies, a sheet of black carbon paper was inserted between two sheets. Trying to correct a typing error was painful, if indeed it were possible! The final copy would then be signed with pen and ink. The fountain pen with its hidden ink cartridge was a huge step forward from the straight pen which could result in a blot if there was too much ink on the nib. Then the signature was gently touched with blotting paper so that it would not smudge.


If there was a secretary in the office, she might have taken Typewriting in high school where, not only would you learn to type without looking at the keys, but how to "throw" the carriage efficiently to increase the words-per-minute.

McTavish Business College in Edmonton was the major training centre for those interested in careers in business. Textbooks addressed not only accounting and typing skills but how your letter could create the best image possible by such important details as using correct spacing and greetings.


The Ready Reckoner might also be in the office. This small book fit in the palm of the hand and contained all the calculations necessary for everyday business: amount owed for any quantity of merchandise at any price, wages by the day/week/month, measurement of timber, etc.

Typewriter Carbon Paper Office books
Fountain pens with a clip to hold it in
your jacket pocket meant that you could
sign a document anywhere.
Typists on manual typewriters
could type 100+ wpm.
Carbon paper used to make copies
Office reference books

Computers and digitization have replaced that world and also the many people employed in it!


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 Last updated: February 1, 2016