Ask a Librarian

The Office, 1920's

by Alethea Drexler, archives assistant
Let’s take a look at office life, circa 1924.
This is the building that housed the Hermann Hospital estate in the 1920’s.  The estate was responsible for the business and funding aspect of running the hospital.

Estate building

Here’s a closer view.  It seems that road construction was a favorite local past-time even then.  According to a notation on the back, the Estate was on the top floor and the building was later sold to Gordon Jewelry, at which point the Estate moved to the Hermann Professional Building.
This was named the Stewart building.  It also has a sign reading “Mack Mfg. Co., Oil Field Supplies” over the front door.  According to the lettering in the sixth-floor windows, Guynes & Colgin, lawyers, also rented space here.  The building next door may say “The Cargill Co.” along the parapet, but I can’t be sure.
Archivist Phil Montgomery brought this to my attention: This photograph was taken by Frank Schlueter, who was well-known in the Houston area.  The Houston Public Library [1], Rice University, and the University of Texas, Austin, all have collections of Schlueter images.
Road construction!

The book-like things on the shelf to the right in the picture are actually file boxes.  A lot of the material we got from the Hermann archives was still in boxes like those, so I wonder if they’re the same ones.
The clock says “G.A. Pf[??]ffle, Watch Inspector, S.S.&S. RY Co., Greenville, Tex.” below its face.  The S.S.&S. was the Sherman, Shreveport, and Southern Railroad[2].  Apparently Greenville was, in 1894, a candidate for the location of a new S.S.&S. hospital[3].  “Watch inspector[4]” sounds like a quaint job now, but accurate timepieces were essential to keep trains running on time and, even more importantly, to ensure that they didn’t run into each other because of discrepancies in timekeeping.

There is a lot of office technology going on here.  I see two candlestick telephones[5], and in the right-hand lower corner, out of focus, we can see a box with two rounded bells on top that is probably a wall-mounted intercom telephone[6].  The small device on the window-sill to the right might be a brad-setter or eyelet press[7], which would have been used to fasten papers together in the years before staplers became the standard method.
There’s a safe in the next room; you can see it through the door.
There are lots of small items on the desk: Ink-wells and bottles; glass bowls for small items such as paperclips or paper-pins; and a pull-off calendar.  It’s the 25th, but I can’t make out the month.  I’m not sure yet of the purpose of the device in the middle front of the photo (directly below the man’s waistcoat buttons): My guesses at this point are that it’s either a pencil sharpener[8] or a calculating machine[9].  I’ll let you know when I find out.
Update!  It’s a Protectograph check protector[14].  Mark [no last name given], the curator at the Early Office Museum online, tells me that this model was very popular and durable, and that examples can be bought for around $25 on eBay, although shipping will cost you about that much, additionally, since they’re quite heavy.
The City of Houston map on the wall is surrounded by advertisements: R.S. Gaut, real estate broker; Jno. [Jonathan] H. Ruby, real estate and loans; and some roofing and lumber companies.  He has a lucky horseshoe and what seems to be a framed caricature tacked to the door frame, and it looks as though there’s a framed panoramic photograph to the left of the door.
Hard at work

There are a lot of interesting details in the next picture.  I like the ceiling fan.  You can also see that the bell-shaped lamps appears to be strung on cords, possibly so they could be raised and lowered.  There are two MKT railroad[10] calendars on the far wall.  The man standing at left, next to the huge log-book, is wearing buttoned shoes.
I’m not sure what all the things are on the table.  That’s a bottle of ink on the center-right.  The other things look like either weights or large stamps.
Office space

Some things never change.  Like in-boxes.  I bet they filled up as quickly then as they do now.  I have two in-boxes myself.  I converted my out-box to an auxiliary in-box, because I never seemed to have much use for an out-box.
I think the typewriter might be an L.C. Smith, a company that later became half of Smith-Corona.  This one[11] has a similar cut-out pattern on its side.
The latest technology

This was in the folder but there wasn’t any notation on it so I’m not sure what connection it has to the Estate.  It may have been one of the rental properties.  The building was located at Dallas and Main Streets and says “Conway Automobile Company” above the door.  I think it might be a couple of years later than the photos of the Estate office, since more of the cars in the picture are closed (have windows).  I’m not sure exactly which corner this was on, but it is now the site of either Macy’s or Starbucks.
Star[12] cars were manufactured by Durant Motors[13] between 1922 and 1928, as competitors for inexpensive Fords and Chevrolets.  Durant went out of business around 1931, probably a victim of both its relatively small size and of the Depression, which killed off a lot of early American automobile brands.  If you drive a Saturn, a Hummer, or a Pontiac, you know how that feels.
Star cars

This staged tourist photo-postcard was in the folder, too.  It was taken in Hot Springs, Arkansas–the scribble in the upper right says “Htspgs 4/26/23”.  The license plates on the cart are from 1921.
It was never mailed but the inscription on the back says, “This is to show you that I can drive the Bull as well as to throw it.  My son Walter seems to enjoy my driving. RSS[?]
I’ve got friends in Arkansas so I’m not going to crack any jokes about the “summer home” in the background or about Arkansas limousin[e]s[13].
What happens in Hot Springs, stays in Hot Springs.

[1] Houston Public Library digital archives
[2] Handbook of Texas Online: Sherman, Shreveport, & Southern Railroad
[3] Hunt County, Texas, Newspaper Index Project: Greenville Messenger, 19 Dec 1894.
[4] Wikipedia: Railroad chronometer
[5] Early Office Museum: Communications equipment
[6] Early Office Museum: Communications equipment
[7] Early Office Museum: Eyelet presses
[8] Early Office Museum: Pencil sharpeners
[9] Early Office Museum: Adding & Calculating Machines: Stepped-drum, pinwheel, and direct multiplication calculating machines
[10] Katy Railroad Historical Society
[12] Wikipedia: Star (automobile)
[13] Durant
[13] Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Science: Limousin
[14] Early Office Museum: Check protectors