Today in Tedium: So something weird happened to me this week, and I can’t stop thinking about it. The reason I can’t stop thinking about it is that a couple years ago, it would have been totally normal. That weird thing is the fact that, for the first time in more than a year, I did an interview with someone over Zoom, and the person on the other end of the line was in an actual office. It had gotten so rare to see offices in Zoom calls that I thought we’d be working remotely forever. This unusual state of affairs got me thinking about something weird—what did “remote work” look like before computers? What was the creator economy when the word “digital” referred to your fingers rather than an underlying set of binary codes? And why did we end up in offices in the first place? Today’s Tedium tries to offer some pre-computing context to the trappings of remote work, influencer marketing, and the gig economy. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The year that the first modern office building emerged with a goal to encourage people to work onsite day in and day out. That building, the Magistrature of Florence, Italy, eventually evolved into the Uffizi, the administrative and legal offices of its host city. (Because when one thinks of the Italian renaissance period, we think of bureaucracy.) In a bit of cosmic irony, this early office building has survived into the modern day as an ornate art gallery.
The origins of the creator economy emerged in a newspaper ad in 18th century Boston
When broken down to its core, the creator economy is in many ways an educational medium. Creators build things that teach other people to do things, or that tell stories in interesting ways.
By reading this, for example, I am educating you about something you didn’t know. And, despite the fact we are not in the same room, you are learning something.
And in that sense, creation could very much be done anywhere. Authors, for example, are great examples of work-at-home enthusiasts. They write better when they’re not in an office, grinding away at their attempt at besting Shakespeare. I mean, if you want to be a writer, you can technically do the actual creation part on your own, though you might need some help with the distribution.
And while, in a modern day creator economy setup, you can have direct interaction with your audience, it doesn’t need to be the dominant thread that drives your work. Just because you read this email doesn’t mean you need to reply to it (but feel free to say hello).
All this lead-up is why I’d like to make the case that the creators of the 18th and 19th centuries ran correspondence courses. And the first person who apparently ran a correspondence course as we think of it today did so in 1728.
Caleb Philipps, a teacher of stenography (a shorthand form of writing) promised an educational offering through the mail thanks to a small ad he published in the Boston Gazette.
In an issue of the Boston Gazette, Philipps (who sold himself as a “teacher of the new method of short hand”) offered his services to local Boston residents, but also extended a hand to those in the country who were not Abel to make a trip into the city.
“Persons in the Country desirous to Learn this Art, may by having the several Lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston,” Philipps wrote.
If we just had this ad to go on, this would be an interesting enough detail to work with, and many observers, such as JSTOR Daily, have made it the basis for thoughtful histories on the history of correspondence learning. (Side note: To confirm this detail myself, I had to sign up for a trial of a genealogy service to get a full copy of this exact page, despite the fact that modern copyright most assuredly was not a thing in 1728.)
But it goes one step further, in that there is an actual copy of some of Philipps’ educational materials—all 43 pages of them—in a book at the Harvard University library that is accessible online. Philipps himself, while maintaining the Skillshare of his day, was taught by James Weston, a British stenographer whose work inspired Philipps’ own teaching. So technically, if you can read handwritten 18th-century English, you could learn shorthand from that book.
Of course, as I’ve written in the past, the traditional postal system was not particularly strong enough to handle things such as far-flung delivery or correspondence until the 19th or even early 20th century. Though others tried this method as well. In an 1833 edition of the Swedish newspaper Lunds Weckoblad, standing out on its own basically because it’s the only English passage in the entire newspaper, a correspondence teacher named A.J. Mueller calls on learners to reach out to him at a specific address.
“The undersigned respectfully imitates to those Ladies and Gentlemen, in the adjacent towns, who study Composition through the medium of the Post, the Address for the month of August will be Little Gray Friars Street. Lund.”
Shorthand was one of the first things taught through correspondence courses—by the 1840s, Sir Isaac Pitman built a sizable correspondence business from shorthand (if you want to learn it, it’s on Google Books)—but it was far from the last. Soon, correspondence grew into a way to teach people who lived in far-flung areas (farmers and miners, respectively, come to mind), the model eventually evolved into a more standard-issue approach to education, with major universities setting up correspondence schools.
The mail was slow, so it was a delayed, self-motivated form of education. Now we have computers to manage all this with, fortunately—and can respond in an instant.
“I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”
— A passage from the 1819 novel Ivanhoe, discussing the services of “free lances,” aka medieval soldiers for hire. As Merriam-Webster notes, this is one of the earliest uses of what became the modern term “freelance,” a phrase that is generally associated with creative work in the modern day. But back in the day it literally referred to free, or available, lances, as that’s what soldiers on horses used.
Why R. Crumb was a prototype for the modern gig worker
In the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor, the version of Robert Crumb portrayed in the film (played by James Urbaniak), is shown as a contrast to Pekar. While Pekar spends decades as a file clerk at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Cleveland, Crumb seemingly comes and goes as he pleases, leaving the Great Lakes city for months or even years at a time, with a job that seems completely untethered to any office environment.
See, Crumb produced illustrations for greeting cards. That is, until his own illustrations became famous, and he didn’t have to work on greeting cards anymore. Instead, he worked on projects like American Splendor.
While far better known these days for his work in the underground comix space, R. Crumb got his start working annoying side gigs like the rest of us, with his passion work being done on the side, during nights and weekends.
Before the pandemic, the idea of working as a digital nomad, where you could basically live anywhere and run a business from that vantage point, was a popular one. But it was one that Crumb was doing in 1965 at the age of 22.
The nature of greeting cards is such that it technically could be done anywhere as long as he had a way to deliver the final work. It was one of the few jobs that could be done anywhere … and that was how Crumb found the flexiblity to build his reputation in underground comix. As the blog Dangerous Minds wrote in 2017 of Crumb’s formative period:
Like many others, Crumb, who entered the world in 1943, had an apprenticeship period in his late teens and early twenties, and in Crumb’s case he kept body and soul together primarily for the American Greetings company in Cleveland, Ohio, even while he was traveling widely—to Europe, to New York, to Chicago, to San Francisco—even while he was infiltrating and in some measure helping create the underground comics tradition mostly associated with the West Coast, even while he was famously having his mind expanded with some high-octane LSD-25 (as it was called at the time) and even while he creating ground-breaking narratives of questionable taste involving sex and race. Years after e.g. contributing to Zap Comics and inventing many of his characters such as Mr. Natural and Flakey Foont, he would still draw a paycheck from American Greetings into the 1970s.
Unsurprisingly, a temperament as touchy as Crumb’s was seldom discerned to be content working for a corporation dedicated to transmitting saccharine and ingratiating content to the great middle class, but the experience did shape Crumb’s art in significant ways—as the artist himself grumpily acknowledged. His boss there was a man named Tom Wilson, who created Ziggy—which some of Crumb’s work at American Greetings distinctly resembled.
If you take the drugs out of the equation, you can see the parallels between Crumb and the modern technology-driven gig worker—working a gig that didn’t really match his sentiment but paid the bills enough so he could do the thing he really wanted to do. The difference was that Crumb didn’t need a computer to do these things.
The cost of the first conference call—a three-minute-long affair in 1915 that, today, would have cost around $485. The coast-to-coast call, which was started by Alexander Graham Bell made the call to his assistant, Thomas Watson (just as it happened in 1876, except with much more distance separating the two), was soon joined by an array of other figures who later stress-tested the line. The challenge of doing this is that none of this was automated, and switchboard operators had to help make the connections at every step of the process—which meant that just to make the connection took about 10 minutes. On top of all this, AT&T had to spend lots of money on copper wire just to make this possible.
How Tupperware made self-employment a possible path forward for thousands
In an age of drop-shipping and membership models, it’s easy to forget just how freeing the idea of working from home once was, and what made that possible.
Founded in 1946, the company (which sold storage mechanisms that relied on plastics) used a direct marketing model to get in front of homes around the world.
Part of what made the model work? Scarcity. You basically had to take part in a Tupperware party to get access to this object for which the word of mouth was already fairly strong.
The person who came up with this idea was one of the earliest female executives in the business world—Brownie Wise, who was hired by Earl Tupper in 1951 as his vice president of marketing, with the goal of selling these plastic containers to the world. And market she did, by building a network of more than 20,000 sellers around the country that helped drive tens of millions in dollars in sales for the plastic dishes, at a time when plastic was still relatively uncommon in the kitchen.
As Smithsonian wrote about her in 2018:
Wise’s innovation lay in figuring out how to make a plastic bowl familiar. The life of this divorced breadwinner was different from those of the married suburban housewives who Tupper was targeting, but she understood that they could be both the ideal market and the ideal salespeople for this new dishware, and she was able to create a Tupperware empire.
This kind of direct selling model worked incredibly well for Tupperware, and it turned working at home into a realistic goal for thousands of people. In many ways, one could draw a line between Tupperware parties and modern influencer marketing. The difference was that the 1950s version of an influencer was focusing on a killer party rather than a killer Instagram feed.
The price of In Fact, a printed newsletter that was printed by investigative journalist George Seldes during the 1940s. Seldes, a muckraker in the traditional sense, came to prominence as a traditional newspaper reporter, but then went independent, working on four-page newsletter largely written by himself, in which he tackled issues such as the dangers of tobacco and the corruption of the mainstream media from a view not dissimilar to the one that modern newsletter authors might enjoy. Despite this small size, the newsletter at its peak reached 176,000 people. As a retrospective featuring Seldes noted in Wired last fall, publishing a printed newsletter required only a small investment in a mimeograph machine, beyond mailing costs, but ultimately became a tool of the establishment, rather than muckrakers.
The truth of the matter is, the business world changes and adapts to growing needs. For example, 70 years ago, the role of the chief executive officer was rare in the private sector. The 1955 edition of the Fortune 500, the first edition of that hallowed list of large companies, had just a single CEO among its ranks, with the top executive taking a title like president or chairman instead. Now basically all organizations have CEOs. Some of them might even have two.
Many of the companies on that list have likewise evolved with the times. As the American Enterprise Institute notes, just 52 U.S.-based companies appear on the Fortune 500 both in 1955 and 2021. Many of the companies that appeared on the list back then were manufacturing or “raw goods” firms that build widgets (like General Motors) or produce/procure the things that allow the widgets to be used (like Exxon Mobil); now, many of their replacements are very much in the information economy business (like Netflix or Google) or focused on retail or services (like Walmart or Amazon).
Try as you might, you are going to run into issues of scale if you try to build a car in your apartment. But building a newsletter, as I’m doing right now? That can be done from the comfort of a home or a coffee shop. For most things that can be built, the tools shrank to the size of a laptop, and that made it possible to create basically anywhere, without being tethered to that dedicated office anymore.
We often talk about things in terms of the creator economy, but the secret to the creator economy working isn’t really even the creation part—it’s the distribution. If the next R. Crumb wants to sell his comix, all he has to do is launch a website. He doesn’t even need paper anymore, but if he did want to use paper, he absolutely could because computers allow for it.
The computer made all of this easier and available to more people. It will be interesting in 20 years looking back at the unbridled creation that digital technology offered and assessing the freedom and flexibility it gave us.
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