History of Secretary: Personal Assistants in History

Fashion show of secretary/clerk clothing at Nordiska Kompaniet, Sweden 1952.

An administrative professional, secretary, or personal assistant is an individual whose work comprises supporting management, including executives, using various communication, project management, or organizational skills. However, this role should not be confused with an executive secretary’s position, which differs from a personal assistant.

A personal assistant’s functions may be completely carried out to assist one other employee or maybe for the benefit of more than one. In other situations, a secretary is an officer of an organization or society who deals with correspondence, accepts new members, and organizes events and official meetings.

Secretaries were traditionally a role for men, and the influence of such a career was heavily appended to the title during the 15th and 16th centuries CE. Let’s explore the history of this job position, starting with the meaning of the word.

The term ‘secretary’ is derived from the old Latin word secernere, “to set apart” or “to distinguish,” the passive participle meaning “having been set apart,” with the ultimate connotation of something confidential or private, as with the English word secret. Therefore, a secretarius was a person managing business confidentially, normally for a powerful individual (a pope, kind, etc.). As a contemporary secretary’s duties often include handling confidential information, their title’s real meaning still holds true.

In these olden days, secretaries acted as trusted assistants and confidantes to persons of influence and power, often performing duties as taking dictations, scribes, or even functioning as personal advisors.

Origin of Secretary

From the Renaissance era until the late 19th century CE, men involved in the daily correspondence and the powerful’s activities had assumed the secretary title.

As humanity evolved, like many titles, the term was utilized for varied and more functions, leading to union titles to define various secretarial work better, like financial secretary or general secretary. Just “secretary” continued in use either as abstract when clear in the setting or for comparatively modest positions such as the officer’s administrative assistant (s) in charge, either as a member of a secretariat or individually. As such less powerful posts became more feminine and common with the multiplication of bureaucracies in the private and public sectors, new words were also issued to represent them, such as ‘personal assistant.’

Modern developments

In the 1840s CE and 1850s CE, business schools were appearing to train female and male students the skills required to work in a clerical position.

In 1870 CE, Sir Isaac Pitman established a school where students could qualify as skilled shorthand writers to “commercial and professional men.” Initially, this school was solely for male students. In 187 CE1, more than 100 such schools were operating in the United States, which grew to as many as 500 by the 1894 CE.

In 1885 CE, with the typewriter’s invention, more ladies started to enter the field. During the upcoming years, primarily since World War I, the secretary’s role has been mostly associated with women. By 1935 CE, fewer men were entering the secretaries field.

By the mid-20th century CE, skilled and entrusted secretaries’ requirement was humongous, and organizations and offices featured comprehensive secretarial pools. In some cases, the demand was significant enough to spur secretaries being hired from overseas; in particular, there was often a constant demand for young British women to come to the U.S. and fill permanent or temporary secretarial positions.

In 1952 CE, Mary Barrett, then an elected president of the National Secretaries Association and American businessman Harry F. Klemfuss created a memorable Secretary’s Day holiday to appreciate the office’s hard work. The holiday became a sensation, and the fourth week of April, is now celebrated in offices globally.

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