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Everyone knows workplace conditions were abysmal in times gone by, but it’s still eye-opening to consider just how different things were. Consider this old poster, which I saw on a visit to the Furnacetown Historic Site, an old bog-iron-making operation, near Snow Hill, Md. I don’t believe that these rules were actually in place at Furnacetown, as this same poster is on display in other historic places, too.

Rather, I think the museum intended the display to get at the broader environment around the country when it comes to working conditions for clerical staffers in an office setting. The memo starts out with good news: The workday has been reduced to a mere 11 hours! But it goes downhill after that …


• The firm has reduced the hours of work, the staff will now only have to be present between 7 am and 6 pm.

• Clothes must be of a sober nature.

• Each member of the clerical staff must bring 4 pounds of coal each day, during cold or damp weather.

• No member of the clerical staff may leave the room, without permission from Mrs. Fischer. Calls of nature are permitted.

• No talking is allowed during business hours. The craving of tobacco, wines, and spirits is a human weakness and as such is forbidden.

• The partaking of food is allowed between 11:30 and Noon but work will not on any account cease.

• The new increased weekly wages are:

Junior Boys (5 to 11 years)                         .15

Boys (to 14 years)                                        .15

Junior Clerks                                             1.06

Senior Clerks                                             2.50

                           (after 15 years with owners)

• All apprentices are to be indentured from 7 to 12 years. Any breach of Contract is faulted, by law, to jail term, and fine to the parents.

The Printing Office

Bottom line: Next time you are in a mood to bitch and moan about your job–hey, at least you don’t have to cart four pounds of coal into the office every day!

–posted by Jim Duffy on Aug. 31, 2018 and updated in October 2023.

NOTE: If you are interested in visiting Furnacetown Historic Site, here is the website with info you need.

NOTE #2: The illustration up top here is not a depiction of Furnacetown. Rather, it’s an illustration of a typical office environment from the period–in this case, a Wells Fargo office in the 1860s. My guess is that this image, with its squeaky clean windows and tidy floor, looks much more pleasant than the old reality …



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