Paperful Office

It became fashionable at some point to deride people who ever supposed that the rise of modern information technology would reduce the quantity of paper floating about. And, indeed, some predictions on this score were naive. Still, it's always astounding to me to read an actual description of how administrative tasks used to be performed. Here, for example, is Peter Hart in Mich: The Real Michael Collins describing the Post Office Savings Bank office where Collins had his first job:

Here, 1,600 or so women and 500 boy clerks kept track of every single deposit and withdrawal in the United Kingdon. The daily flow of paper was astonishing and intricate. Notices of withdrawal and deposits arrived from account-holders and postmasters all over the country, by post and telegram. Every change had to be individually checked and noted in the ledgers (Hannie's job for many years), which were themselves checked every quarter against the Postmaster Returns. Deposit books -- all 8 million of them -- were sent in once a year for double-checking. Withdrawals were sorted and counted in the Sorting Branch, wherre they were then divided into sixty warrant divisions and divided again into large and small amounts. The senior sorters would enter them on lists and pass them on to the Warrant Brance. Here declarations corresponding to the notices would be taken out form lockers, and the two together would be forwarded on in branches of sixty in special pouches. Deposit dockets hit the Sorting Branch just after the withdrawals departed, to be stamped with the date, passed to the Daily Balance Branch, noted, and passed back to the sorters, who sorted them to Book Office order and rerouted them to the Paying Office, which gave them back to the sorters, who stamped each docket with its division number before handing them on to the Acknowledgement Inquiry section, which would write them up and, of course, ship them all back to the beleaguered Sorting Branch, where they were released again into the world. Every move was timed, and everything had to move on time or the whole machine would fail. The pressure was intense: to begin with, withdrawal notices had to be out of the Sorting Branch by 9:47 AM.

Collins' job was to address envelopes. At least seventy an hour (on average), seven hours a day, five and a half days a week. My mother, meanwhile, used to have a job at Newsweek that I think involved, among other things, physically cutting photgraphs with her collection of extremely sharp knives and sundry straight-edges.