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America Books History Review Technology Typewriters

On Paper Trails and Typewriting Females

I just finished reading Cameron Blevins’ new book Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West, which I learned a lot from (see my full notes and quotes from the book below).

One thing that popped out to me was the role of women in the Post Office’s workforce. Women made up two-thirds of all Post Office employees by the end of the 1870s, with the Post Office itself accounting for 75% of all federal civilian employees at the time. This made it a vital source of work for women early in the movement for women’s suffrage.

Their chief work was within the Topographer’s Office, which produced maps of postal routes. The layout and drawing of the maps was done by men (it was actually called “gentlemen’s work”). But the “ladies’ work” of coloring the routes according to frequency of delivery was arguably just as if not more important, because it added the dimension of time to the otherwise inert graphics and kept the maps up to date and therefore useful.

This wasn’t easy given the constantly changing routes and limitations of paper. As Blevins put it: “These women were, in effect, trying to paint a still life while someone kept rearranging the fruit.”

All this was on my mind when I saw Richard Polt’s Instagram post for International Typewriter Day.

I’m not sure how much typewriters factored into the work of the female “colorists” given its graphical nature, but the people’s machine without a doubt contributed to the societal sea change happening concurrently as women marched first into offices and then, eventually, the voting booth.

Anyway, I recommend Paper Trails primarily for history nerds—specifically 19th century America. The academic writing is refreshingly accessible and peppered with illustrative graphs throughout. I’m happy to file it under my “technically first” series of books about how innovative technologies came into being.

Notes & Quotes

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Books Technology

Technically First

This happens to me all the time: I hear about a book (or movie or album, but usually book) and find it at my library, then I read it and see mention of another book or figure, sending me off into that direction, where I find another book to read. And so on. I’ll call it the Wikipedia Effect, which is a little less hippie-dippie than calling it the Everything Is Connected Effect, though it’s of the same spirit.

This time, I listened to the 99% Invisible episode on the U.S. Post Office, based on Winifred Gallagher’s new book How the Post Office Created America: A History, which I went to look at in the stacks. I didn’t end up checking it out, but as my eyes wandered a little farther down the shelf I did see an intriguing title: A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon.

Calling the story “heroic” is a bit much, but it’s a quick and well-done story of the small group of monied men in mid-eighteenth-century New York who staked their fortunes on basically willing the oceanic cable into being, even after some pretty serious setbacks. It’s a good companion with Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-Line Pioneers, a broader history of the invention of telegraphy.

I spotted it on a shelf at the library when I was looking for something completely different—is there a word for serendipity striking in the library? Librindipity?—but my interest in it made me realize I’m intrigued by the stories of how innovative technologies came into being.

In addition to these two books about the telegraph, I’ve already read a few books I think fit into this theme of the development of a revolutionary technology or notable technical achievement:

  • Screw and screwdriver (One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Chairs (Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair by Witold Rybczynski)
  • Photography (River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit)
  • Longitude (Longitude by Dava Sobel)

Some of these were heralded in their time, known right away to be revolutionary, but some were not. I’m interested in both: how things came into being whether we noticed them or not.

A quick brainstorm yielded a few more ideas for future reading along these lines. (I’ll need a hashtag for when I catch up with these. Let’s go with #TechnicallyFirst). There’s no guarantee I’ll read these; they’re just ideas gathered in one place for future reference:

  • Transcontinental Railroad (Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen Ambrose)
  • Interstate Highways (The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways by Earl Swift)
  • Electricity (Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes)
  • Pencils (The Pencil: A History Of Design And Circumstance by Henry Petroski)

Will have to keep adding to the list. But I thank A Thread Across the Ocean for sending me down this path, wherever it leads.