‘I Would Prefer Not To’: The Origins of the White Collar Worker

Longreads

Nikil Saval | Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace | Doubleday | April 2014 | 31 minutes (8,529 words)

Below is an excerpt from the book Cubed, by Nikil Saval, as recommended by Longreads contributor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils…

—Theodore Roethke, “Dolor”

The torn coat sleeve to the table. The steel pen to the ink. Write! Write! Be it truth or fable. Words! Words! Clerks never think.

—Benjamin Browne Foster, Down East Diary (1849)

They labored in poorly lit, smoky single rooms, attached to merchants and lawyers, to insurance concerns and banks. They had sharp penmanship and bad eyes, extravagant clothes but shrunken, unused bodies, backs cramped from poor posture, fingers callused by constant writing. When they were not thin, angular, and sallow, they were ruddy and soft; their paunches sagged onto their thighs.

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