My Harvard Job Back Then

Underwoodfive typewriter Courtesy X570, Wikimedia CommonsUnderwoodfive typewriter
Courtesy X570, Wikimedia Commons

Feeling like a pioneer, I left Maine in 1955 and hopped a train for Boston to  make use of my new Smith College English degree by working as a writer. Instead, I landed a job as an assistant secretary at Harvard College.

My supervisor, Miss Mabel Bartlett, had a nose so small I feared her glasses would slide off. Pointing to her ebony armchair with its Harvard seal, she said, “You see that chair? If you’re here twenty-five years you’ll get one of these, so it’s something to look forward to.”

Having started me off with a goal, she handed me an eight-line letter to type on my manual typewriter along with a sheet of 5×8 Harvard letterhead stationery and enough carbon paper to make four copies.

I had taken typing in ninth grade.  I would erase my mistakes when typing college papers, but leave the errors on my one carbon copy. (Copiers had not yet been invented.) But four carbons! To fit the 5/8” letterhead stationery, I had to cut two pieces of carbon paper in half. I alternated the carbon paper with the letterhead and rolled the nine sheets of paper into the typewriter. I soon made a typo. With no way to correct four carbons, I tossed the sheets into the wastebasket and tried again.

As I made more typos, the wastebasket overflowed. I didn’t want Miss Bartlett to notice, so I filled my desk drawers instead of the wastebasket. “Where is the stationery,” I asked her when I ran out of letterhead and carbons before lunch. She pointed to the supply closet.

I finished the letter at four p.m., typed five envelopes, and returned the completed assignment to Miss Bartlett.

She smiled. “Thank you.” She didn’t ask me to do anything else.

I never got my Harvard chair. But two years later I did get my MRS degree.

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