Gallery show explores “sec’s appeal”


This spring’s show at the Goldstein Museum of Design examines the history of office relationships, with typewriters, gag gifts and outfits from each decade gathered to explore the role of secretaries in the 20th century.

The show is based on curator Midori Green’s art history dissertation, with collaboration from her adviser, Katherine Solomonson (School of Architecture), who has written about skyscrapers and co-edits a book series called Architecture, Landscape and American Culture for the University of Minnesota Press.

The exhibit, which runs through May 23, examines “the whole material culture and art culture” associated with secretaries, Green said.

She said the Goldstein, located in McNeal Hall on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, has a large collection of clothing, from which she chose examples.

The Minnesota Historical Society contributed artifacts that include a Remington-Sholes typewriter embellished with copper. An Edison Dictaphone came from the Hennepin History Museum.

“Nobody really collects this stuff as a unit,” Green said. Her research has taken her in recent years to the Remington Company archives in Delaware, the Helen Gurley Brown collection at Smith College in Massachusetts and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

She spent hours in libraries paging through women’s magazines. “Ladies Home Journal – I sat one month and went page by page through a couple of decades,” she said.

Green has worked in offices herself, though not in a position called “secretary.” Her mother was a secretary for many years, and her grandmother went through secretary school.

Green finished her bachelor’s degree when she was 32, motivated partly by the lack of respect from bosses for workers without college degrees.

She discovered the Minnesota art history program, won admittance and soon afterwards found her passion.

“I hit on this my first semester and I got obsessed with it,” she said. The working title for her dissertation is “Sec’s Appeal.”

Industrialization drew women into the workplace in a new way in the early 20th century, she said – as part of the paper economy.

“This was a new concept, to have middle-class working women” instead of homemakers and factory workers, she said.

A 1911 poster in the exhibit illustrates “How a Business Girl Should Not Dress,” emphasizing necklines and hems.

And it wasn’t just the workplace that had to be negotiated, she said. Secretaries needed restaurants (not bars) where they could eat lunch, respectable places to live and transportation.

In subsequent decades, the need to recruit women as office workers influenced architecture and interior design, as well as the portrayal of the workplace in advertising and in the movies. A Dixie cup ice cream lid in the exhibit depicts actress Jean Harlowe as a glamorous secretary with the slogan “Secretary, or Wife?”

World War II drew women into offices as well as factories, Green said, adding that “we often hear about Rosie the Riveter, but we don’t hear about these legions of secretaries.”

When the war was over and the jobs waned, public images shifted to portray the office as a dangerous place.

“It became sexualized as we tried to sweep ’em back home,” Green said, displaying what appeared to be a dishtowel printed with bawdy cartoons.

The exhibit concludes with a recent revival of sexualized secretaries portrayed on television. Green cited office manager Joan Harris on “Mad Men” and the complex relationships in “Ugly Betty.”

It’s been a century of rapid change, Green said. “It was a negotiating of new sexual roles and boundaries, in the context of a respectable middle class.”