1950s Secretaries: 11 Rules Women Were Forced To Follow At The Office

February 24, 2017

When women began entering the workforce following World War II, there were limited career options available to them.

Personally, I’m thankful to those who fought past the difficult transition outside of household duties. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the women waltzed into their offices before me.

For the most part, though, ladies of the past were confined to clerical positions in an office. That isn’t to say their work was easy — on the contrary, they often had to work twice as hard to help their boss look good while they got paid significantly less. Taking a glimpse at a few of the documents supplied to women training for the task sheds plenty of light on how put-upon secretaries really were back in the 1950s, which makes their perseverance all the more admirable.

See some of the more demanding requirements for administrative assistants below, and be sure to let us know if we missed any other strange rules women were meant to follow while at the office.

And don’t forget to SHARE with your friends and family!

[H/T: The National Archives 1, 2, 3]

1. Smile Readily And Naturally

YouTube / shaggylocks

As the go-to gal for her boss, a secretary was expected to pretty much always be in a chipper mood, even when dealing with a difficult challenge.

2. Be Fastidious About Your Appearance

YouTube / shaggylocks

The specifics vary between secretarial training programs from back in the day, but plenty of attention was regularly given to making sure the ladies looked as good as they worked. Unfortunately for the messy woman snacking on chocolate at her desk shown above, she probably didn’t quite pass the test.

Notes from a 1958 New Orleans training guide detail the several ways women were told to keep their skin in check, including proper cleansing and makeup to “protect skin from the elements.”

3. Never Wear Long Earrings

YouTube / Vintage Fashions

Most agencies emphasized modesty for the ladies they sent out for office jobs, which meant no ostentatious jewelry in their ears. Besides, big earrings would just get in the way of answering the phone.

4. Maintain Excellent Posture

Wikimedia Commons

This tip was also listed by the training program in New Orleans as beneficial to the secretary’s overall health. However, it also mentioned how it was “essential for beauty.”

5. Keep A Pleasing And Well-Modulated Voice

Flickr / Seattle Municipal Archives

Not only did they have to look right, they also had to hone their voices into an acceptable tenor. Of course, they could never raise their tone to their boss.

6. Refrain From Sarcasm


Obviously, no one should be sarcastic with their boss if it feels inappropriate, but it was especially frowned upon for women entering the workforce in the 1950s to be rude to their male superiors.

7. Conceal Your Boredom

Flickr / Archives New Zealand

We’ve all been with a co-worker whose story just never seems to end, but we usually find ways to politely excuse ourselves. Back in the day, secretaries were instructed to sit and pretend to be interested.

8. Always Avoid Gossip

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Based on every office I’ve ever worked in, I have a feeling this one was especially difficult for employees to fully adhere to, even back then.

9. Refrain From Talking About Yourself

YouTube / shaggylocks

Even if someone attempted to pry out some information about the secretary’s weekend, she was meant to reveal very little. Otherwise, she could perhaps shift the conversation back to a more senior employee or simply get back to work.

10. Have Omniscient Knowledge Of The Boss’ Whereabouts

Wikimedia Commons

In a silly poem from the 1950s, secretaries from Waco, Texas, joked that they “must know where the boss is every single minute so she can tell the right people the wrong place.”

11. Never Expect A Promotion

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In the same poem, the second to last paragraph explains how “an office boy starts at the bottom and works up, a secretary starts as a secretary… And just works.”

Did we miss any requirements you remember for secretaries from the past? Let us know below, and be sure to SHARE with your friends!