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The Underwood Building As A Symbol

That cute little skyscraper is the 1912 Underwood Building st 30 Vesey Street, where it stands today with its exterior unchanged except for retail signage. (That’s the Municipal Building under construction in the background right, and St. Peter’s Church just north (from our view, left) of Underwood. There’s absolutely nothing remarkable about the building itself: it’s a typical early-1900s steel-frame office building with a brick curtain wall.

It was constructed as the headquarters of the Underwood Typewriter Company, one of the pioneering US manufacturers of typewriters. Underwood began making the machines in the 1890s and continued into the 1950s. The typewriter, which replaced hand copying of papers, was part of both a social context (the modern white-collar office) and a technological regime (the world of mass paper documents). The office as a social setting has been damaged by the Covid lockdown and probably permanently changed. Certainly, there are enough articles about part-time working from home become a new norm after all restrictions are lifted. The old technology, on the other hand, may be done for.

There’s a long list of intertwined office technologies that were invented at various times, but really took hold shortly before World War I. Typewriters were one of the earlier pieces. Steel (fireproof) filing cabinets and furniture, flat-top desks replacing roll-top and cubby-hole desks, staplers, hanging folders, paper clips, carbon paper, xerox machines (one of the last entries into the field), ball-point pens, index-card filing systems, and rubber stamps are also pieces. There are many others, and an office equipment magazine from the early 1920s bears a striking resemblance to office computer magazines of the 1990s. The difference between a well-indexed filing system and a poorly-indexed one, in the minds of the magazine editorialists, and possibly their readers, was the difference between success and failure. Those of us who entered the working world at the end of this era learned all sorts of tricks for getting the results we wanted from the old office technology, just as our predecessors had, but soon found that knowledge meaningless, as PCs and laser printers drove out typewriters and xeroxes.

The final obsolescence of the old office technology has been coming for some time. Three years ago, I wrote about OSE having moved all of our files to a cloud server. By good luck, when we had to start working from home, we were already set for it. But that also means we’ve been eliminating paper, and our office has literally one drawer for files, a state of affairs that would have seemed impossible for a small company not that long ago. It’s been years since we bought any paper supplies other than printer paper and toner, and our use of those has fallen by 90 percent in the last year. I doubt we use five staples in a month.

So the Underwood Building, a small skyscraper built by an office technology company, is the predecessor of, for example, Apple Park. And while any office worker walking by the building might have used a different brand of typewriter (a Remington, for example) they certainly knew what Underwood was, just as people in a PC-based office know what Linux and Macs are. The old technology lasted about a century; we’ll see how long the new lasts.