In the early days, both the device and its operator were referred to as “typewriters.”
Fittingly, struggling divorcee and single mother Althea McDowell Altemus wrote her lively and enchanting book, “Big Bosses: A Working Girl’s Memoir of Jazz Age America,” on one. It seems apt that she composed her memoir using the tool of her trade, with which she labored as a secretary for renowned employers in Miami, New York and Chicago throughout the late teens and 1920s.
As Dr. Joel M. Hoffman, executive director of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, writes in his admiring and illuminating foreword, “Reading the original manuscript as a thick stack of 8 1 / 2-by-11-inch pages, with double-spaced text in traditional Courier font, one can imagine the staccato rhythm of Althea’s fingers pressing the keys,” and appreciate that Althea’s “act of committing her tell-all to paper in so formal a manner seems extremely courageous.”
In turn, editor Robin F. Bachin, a history professor at the University of Miami, notes: “misspelled words, grammatical irregularities and formatting inconsistencies have all been retained to reflect the challenges Altemus faced in writing a manuscript of this length, sophistication and complexity on a typewriter, as well as her limited education and training.”
This professional secretary and her trusty typewriter give the reader tales that are of immense social, historical and feminist significance. Of the flagrantly discriminatory hiring practices faced by female job seekers, she writes, “Whatever crime it is for a woman … to wish to earn her own living and keep her child with her, I do not know – but crime it seems to be.”
Yet so, too, are her tales dishy, witty and a ton of fun.
Her situation – a bright, driven woman required by circumstance to support herself financially – was not atypical. But her famous employers were. She rubbed shoulders with such luminaries as John Singer Sargent, Thomas Edison, William Jennings Bryan, Helen Clay Frick and actress Constance Talmadge.
It’s unclear what Altemus intended for this manuscript, which she wrote in 1932, but never released. What is clear is that we are lucky now to have this remarkable – and remarkably written – document of everyday life and work in 20th century America from a perspective that is all too rarely seen.
By Althea McDowell Altemus
University of Chicago Press, 192 pages