Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In Celebration of Nat'l Administrative Professionals Day: The (Venerable) Washington School for Secretaries

As World War I came to an end, Dr. Richard T. Ely, founder of the American Economic Association and a former professor of President Woodrow Wilson's at Johns Hopkins University, became troubled with the inability of clerical workers to keep pace with rapidly changing systems and procedures used in offices. He conceived the idea of a business school that would make men, and women, more competitive by providing the highest level of secretarial training.
On March 8, 1920, a large display ad in The Washington Post heralded the opening of Dr. Ely's venture, the Washington School for Secretaries. 
The school was deluged with phone calls from young women eager to hone their skills. Candidates were carefully screened for education and character. Still, there were hurdles to overcome, even with 'nice girls.' 

After ratification of the 19th amendment some thought that young women had become too daring, taking up smoking, visiting speakeasies, wearing makeup and even cussing like men. 

Mrs. Adria C. Beaver Lynham was director of the school and had previously worked in The White House where she handled President Coolidge's mail. She had little tolerance for behavior unbefitting a lady and set out to transform her diamonds-in-the-rough into polished professionals. 

Mrs. Lynham imposed her rigid expectations on students by making them subject to inspection when they arrived for class in the morning. If they were not wearing hats and gloves she sent them home. She recruited an instructor from a modeling school to teach students how to cross their knees and hold a phone gracefully. Students learned how to make formal introductions and write thank you notes properly. 

Of course, they also received training in business machines. Men received the same training as women, with an emphasis on supervision. Shorthand was optional for men, while courses in accounting, salesmanship, advertising and market research were added. The school turned out thousands of graduates and in September 1930 took over the entire 5th floor of the new National Press Building located at 14th and F Sts., N.W., the former site of the Old Ebbitt Hotel.

Business flourished, even in the midst of the Depression, and in 1936 a second school was opened in New York City. The schools were operated as a university, with a graduation ceremony and a formal dance that included the coronation of "Miss Secretary." Dignitaries were invited to be commencement speakers. In June 1939, Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross, director of the Bureau of the Mint, told the graduating class that the economic conditions that brought woe to the country in recent years also 'brought privilege to womankind' because it gave them an opportunity to prove themselves.  

During World War II, Civil Service Commissioner Arthur S. Flemming responded to the increased demand for secretaries by appointing Mrs. Lynham head of a government-subsidized training program operated through the Washington School for Secretaries. This irked competing schools in the nation's capital who thought it was unfair.

After the war, Mrs. Lynham positioned herself as an international authority on the new field of secretarial science, also writing a book. She contributed articles to the National Education Journal and the Executive Secretary, a British publication. She also lectured in Great Britain.

Mrs. Lynham became adept at self-promotion, never hesitating to share her unconventional approach to training. "There's more to being a good secretary than just knowing how to type and take shorthand," wrote Washington Post reporter Florence Byrnes. "While these two skills may land a girl a job because they are easily measured, they won't hold the job for her unless she can perform some 798 other duties efficiently and with the charm of a hostess on Embassy Row. 

"'Actually,' says Mrs. Adria Beaver Lynham, director of the Washington School for Secretaries, 'the average Girl Friday spends only one fourth of her time in stenographic work.' On that premise the local school takes a 'different' approach to secretarial training. 

"WSS teaches all the things you'd expect a business course to cover -- plus one! Plus one is charm. The charm instruction points out the importance of good posture, appropriate business dress and grooming." 

Byrnes summed up Lynham's philosophy by describing her "Chippendale" approach to colors. 

"There's a difference in dressing for a man or woman boss. 'Men like everyday things like navy blue or black with touches of white. They'll look at bright colors but they don't like them in an office,' says Mrs. Lynham. 

"'It all goes back to the old theory that while a man may admire a baroque piece of furniture in a gallery or home, he invariably selects simple, straight-lined pieces for his office. And a secretary must be as impersonal as the office equipment -- attractive, yet unobtrusive.'" 

The Washington School for Secretaries closed its doors in 1990. I'll be sharing other stories about Mrs. Lynham's philosophy in upcoming posts. In the meantime, enjoy these memories written by WSS graduates:

"I am an honor graduate of the old WSS - I could do shorthand at 140 and could type on a manual 85 wpm and on an electric easily over 100 wpm and those were 15 minute tests with two errors or less! I got a great job, made good money and still have these skills to this day. Our director, Adria Beaver Lynham, was one for the books. She made us toe the mark in every way -- we had to wear long line girdles, no 'bedroom' hair, just totally professionals. Young ladies walked briskly down F Street - there was to be 'no strolling.'" 

* * *

"The WSS gave me a firm foundation on which to build my career in the business world. Excellent training! At the time I attended, the intense, one-year course was equivalent to a two-year associates degree in business administration at a community college. I shall always remember the hats, heels and gloves. Everyone in WDC knew you were a WSS student at one glance. I attended the school when it was in the National Press Building, a very exciting location and when it was still a privately owned school. I believe a computer company bought the school the following year."

1 comment:

  1. Mrs. Lynham was Adria Catherine STALNAKER who first married to S. Lamar BEAVER in Washington D.C.. Her parents were Andrew V. STALNAKER and Regina Atlantic POLING. She had one sister, Eddith.