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How Cubicles Came to Be


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How Cubicles Came to Be

The arrangement that began in the nineteenth-century factory and lived on through the twentieth-century office may soon end.

In the middle of the last century, C. Wright Mills bought a contraption called a Shopsmith, an all-in-one, five-foot-long workbench that included a lathe, a disk sander, a table saw, two drill presses, and a jigsaw. He was waiting for Oxford University Press to send him galleys of his new book, “White Collar,” a study of office workers. He paid for his Shopsmith with royalties he earned translating from German into English the essays of Max Weber, including one on bureaucracy. Then he bought an old farmhouse on five acres of land in Pomona, New York. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, he’d ride his motorcycle from the farm, where he hoped to grow vegetables, to Columbia University, where he taught sociology. (He’d built the motorcycle himself, in a factory in Germany.) Back at the farmhouse, he’d take out his tools and get to work. He was making an office. “I’ve a built-in flat file with 30 cubbyholes by one end of the 8 foot desk slab of plywood,” he told his parents. He used five hundred dollars he was paid for an interview about his upcoming book to buy wood, and, with plans he cribbed from the furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, he built a sixteen-foot-wide cabinet called a “space divider,” along with a thirty-foot wall of bookshelves. Then he covered the ceiling and the walls with acoustical tile, for soundproofing. He liked to roar, though also: he liked quiet.

“White Collar,” which appeared in 1951, is Mills’s account of the splitting of work from life—and of meaning from existence—in the new American middle class, a mass of white-collar office workers, salesmen, bureaucrats, professors, and salaried executives who, as Mills saw it, were so profoundly alienated from everything that mattered that they had no past, no politics, and no culture, and were so numbed by the paper-clipped pointlessness of their days that they had been anesthetized to their own alienation. “The white-collar people slipped quietly into modern society,” he wrote. “Whatever history they have had is a history without events; whatever common interests they have do not lead to unity; whatever future they have will not be of their own making.” They had the cheerfulness of robots, having lost the capacity to feel misery, or, in truth, anything—except boredom.

Nikil Saval’s first book, “Cubed” (Doubleday), is, he says, “inspired by and is an homage to C. Wright Mills’s White Collar.” Saval doesn’t discuss Mills much (he doesn’t mention Mills’s Shopsmith or his plywood cubbies, for instance), except to distinguish their approaches; Mills’s was sociological, Saval’s is historical. “Subjecting Mills’s synoptic portrait of the office to the claims of history reveals ideologies and classes being made and unmade, along with fundamental notions of how and why we work,” Saval writes. It’s not immediately clear what that means, which is a problem that Mills sometimes had, too.

Mills was interested in the people who work in offices. Saval, an editor at n+1, is interested in the office as a place: filing cabinets and photocopiers, rolling chairs and cubicles. With the rise of the office, Mills argued, came the invention of leisure, which he considered both a scourge and a swindle: “Each day men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and week end.” Much of “White Collar” is Mills’s yelp of nostalgia for a (mostly imaginary) pre-industrial order in which the craftsman controls his own work and learns from doing it, as opposed to the new bureaucratic order, in which the white-collar worker has no control over his own work and crafts are commercially packaged, leisure-time “hobbies,” like the prefab kits you can buy, these days, to brew beer or can pears. Saval, who believes that the age of the office is nearly at an end, wonders what will happen when the last sliding door at the last office park glides shut. About what was happening to work, Mills was furious and pained; Saval is amused and hopeful. The cover of “White Collar” consists of stop-sign-stark white letters over a nearly black photograph of a tiny little man, a Willy Loman in hat and trenchcoat, passing by the massive granite columns of an office building. The smiley-face-yellow cover of “Cubed” features a friendly cartoon of a Dilbert-era office cubicle. Mills’s book was subtitled “The American Middle Classes”; the subtitle of Saval’s book is “A Secret History of the Workplace.” This is a misnomer: tracing the history of the office from the desk of Bartleby the scrivener to the rumpus rooms at Google HQ is a neat idea for a book; that doesn’t make it a “secret history.” Most of what Saval has to say is not only familiar but derivative; as he admits, his book is “chiefly a work of synthesis.” Still, “Cubed” is cleverly pieced together and much more subtle and sophisticated than its fun-facts-in-a-box P.R., which bills it as a book about “a vast amount of stuff you only thought was boring,” as if readers, like Mills’s glassy-eyed white-collar workers, find everything boring.

Reading “Cubed” is like visiting a museum holding an exhibit called “The Office Through the Ages”; each gallery is a period room as fussily appointed as the sets on “Mad Men,” down to the last gooseneck lamp and matte-beige telephone. You begin in the dimly lit counting house of a manufacturing firm, in a small corner furnished with a single, wooden, high-backed, cubby-holed Bob Cratchit desk, circa 1840. There had been scriveners and bookkeepers and amanuenses for centuries, bent, ink-stained men who kept books and copied documents for merchants and lawyers and scholars. (A secretary is something else; historically and etymologically, a secretary is the person you trust with your secrets.) But the clerk, as a phenomenon, was born only with the rise of the factory and then of modern business, which, as Alfred Chandler long ago argued, separated making and selling into inventing, manufacturing, banking, accounting, insuring, shipping, and retailing, each with its own clerk. “They had all slightly bald heads, from which the right ears, long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end,” Poe wrote, in “The Man of the Crowd,” in 1840. The growing number of clerks depended, too, on the rise of the common school and the spread of literacy. Herman Melville described the life of mid-nineteenth-century men as “pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” Melville wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in 1853; a New York census taken two years later reported that clerks were the third-largest occupational group in the city. “Office-worker” entered the language in 1856. Gaslight replaced candlelight, and by the end of the century the quill and the cubby desk had gone the way of the periwig and the spittoon. The typewriter was first sold commercially in 1867; the vertical file cabinet dates to the eighteen-eighties. Clerks worked long hours in far better conditions than people who worked in factories, whose exhaustion was physical, but they worked in conditions of drudgery all the same. At first, when there was a clerk here and a clerk there, clerks might hope to raise their station, to become, one day, the boss; they weren’t a separate class, or, at least, they didn’t think of themselves that way. In 1889, Parker Brothers began selling a board game called Office Boy; the object of the game is to become Head of the Firm. By then, the odds of making that rise had grown long.

The museum’s second gallery would be the headquarters of a railroad company, in a steel-and-elevator skyscraper in Chicago, circa 1920, cluttered with row upon row of steel desks topped with stacks of memos and organized, for the first time, by department. When business became big business—conglomerates employing hundreds and even thousands of people—companies divided themselves into still smaller units. What was once accounting became accounts payable, accounts receivable, auditing, and the comptroller, each with its own office. In 1880, Saval reports, clerks made up less than five per cent of the nation’s workforce, or a hundred and eighty-six thousand people, nearly all of them men; by 1910, more than four million Americans worked in offices, and almost half were women. They punched time clocks and sat on chairs with wheels. The Modern Efficiency Desk, a metal slab topping file drawers, a set on each side, was invented by the Metal Office Furniture Company (now Steelcase), in 1915. It has all the warmth of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s stopwatch. Furniture made of wood—carved, dark-stained, and brass-knobbed—was reserved for the higher-ups. In some companies, the corridor of leather-wood-and-cigar executive offices (picture your Levenger catalogue) is still known as “mahogany row.”

As with the factory, so with the office: in an assembly line, the smaller the piece of work assigned to any single individual, the less skill it requires and the less likely the possibility that doing it well will lead to doing something more interesting, and better paid. In the eighteenth century, servants and artisans called ladies and gentlemen “people in ruffles,” because they wore ruffled cuffs, to make clear that they had no need to work with their hands. A century and more later, office workers wore white collars and cuffs as badges of their aspiration. Upton Sinclair popularized the modern usage of the phrase “white collar” in 1919, when he wrote, “It is a fact with which every union workingman is familiar, that his most bitter despisers are the petty underlings of the business world, the poor office-clerks, who are often the worst exploited of proletarians, but who, because they are allowed to wear a white collar, and to work in the office with the boss, regard themselves as members of the capitalist class.” Although, sometimes, a collar is just a collar.