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Lottie Betts Tushingham

by Christina Bates | November 17, 2000

The turn of the twentieth century was an exciting time for working women. More jobs were opening up to them than ever before. Canada was in a financial boom and needed female workers to feed the expanding economy. Between 1891 and 1931, the number of female office workers in Canada rose from 5,000 to 120,000.

Women were attracted to clerical work, given the alternatives. Most women were employed as domestic servants, or as unskilled factory hands. Office work offered a better wage (in 1901, female clerks earned 45% more than the average female wage) and a clean, pleasant working environment.

One such young woman was Lottie Betts who, like many of her contemporaries, entered into clerical work as a young woman. But Lottie was special: she became so proficient at the typewriter that she joined a typewriting speed team, and went on to win national and international typing contests. All 18 of the medals Lottie won are in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec. They are a tribute to her remarkable career.

Lottie was born in Ottawa on September 25, 1889, to Isaac and Nellie Betts. The family moved to Toronto in 1902. We don’t know where Lottie studied stenography and typing, but she became a whiz at the typewriter. First introduced in the 1870s, the typewriter was fairly standard office equipment when Lottie began work around 1905.

Typing called for great concentration, manual dexterity and meticulousness, all of which Lottie had in plenty, along with a good dose of competitive spirit. Her special talent was recognized early on, and she was encouraged to take part in typewriting competitions. Scores of competitions sponsored by typewriter manufacturers were held at major trade shows and exhibitions each year in Canada, the United States and Europe.

Hundreds of people were attracted to these matches, and competition was fierce. No typewriter company took these contests more seriously than the Underwood Company of New York. Underwood’s racing team was unsurpassed, coached by a man named Charles E. Smith. Smith was a talent scout who went to secretarial schools to search out potential champions. Mr. Smith found Lottie Betts, and enticed her to New York in 1909 to train with his team. One year after joining the Underwood team, Lottie won the world’s record for accuracy in typing.

Lottie enjoyed her celebrity status, but by 1913 she had other important things on her mind. On April 9, 1913, she married A.D. Tushingham, an inspector for the Bell Telephone Company. Like so many young women, Lottie traded office work for home work, and devoted herself to raising three children.

Competition was still in Lottie’s blood, however, and when her children reached school age, she returned to her typewriter. After winning several minor prizes, Lottie finally won the jackpot – first place at the annual Canadian championship at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1923. Three thousand fans swamped the hall to cheer on their heroes and heroines! The test material was particularly difficult, but Lottie beat the rest with 99 words per minute.

Lottie continued winning medals until 1928, when she decided to retire from competition. But she continued her involvement with the typewriter, teaching her son (who donated her medals to the museum) to type his essays for university, and giving pep-talks at high schools and business colleges.

Lottie Betts Tushingham embraced the typewriter during an era of optimism when it was believed that young women were entering a whole new world of opportunity in the workplace, and especially in the office. Unfortunately, that optimism did not pan out. As the century progressed, clerical work was devalued, along with salaries.

But the medals won by Lottie Betts Tushingham are something to celebrate: the excitement of competition, the opening up of new skilled jobs for women, and the tremendous pride they took in mastering that newfangled machine, the typewriter.

more to consider
  • Typewriters or PCs, women still hitting the keyboards, by DAVID AKIN, National Post pg. C13 | May 24, 2001
  • Working with Computers, by KATHERIN MARSHALL, Statistics Canada study: “technology has not altered gender imbalance at work.”
  • 60% of Canada’s workforce used a computer at work in 2000 (33% in 1989), although women are more likely to use one than men
  • Using computers ...“has ... homogenized the work experience for most Canadians, failed to emancipate women from the typing pool, and increased the opportunities for employers to closely monitor and regulate the behaviour of employees.”
  • Pat Churchyk of Lethbridge University says, “the use of computers at work has blurred the line between public and private life. We check our home email from the office and vice versa.”
  • The StatsCan survey found that women use the computer mostly for word processing

resources for this story

  • The Wonderful Writing Machine, by BRUCE BLIVEN, Jr., Random House, ISBN:600150329X | 1954
  • Woman’s Place is at the Typewriter: Office Work and Office Workers, 1870-1930, by MARGERY W. DAVIES, Temple University Press, ISBN: 0877222916 | 1982
  • Graham S. Lowe, Women, Work and the Office: the Feminization of Clerical Occupations in Canada, 1901-1931, by GRAHAM S. LOWE, Canadian Journal of Sociology, pgs. 361–381, 5:4, ISSN: 0318-6431, ISSN: 1710-1123 | 1980
  • Marjorie MacMurchy, The Canadian Girl at Work: A Book of Vocational Guidance, by MARJORIE MacMURCHY, A.T. Wilgress, pgs. 15–19 and 107–115 | 1919
  • The Girl of the New Day: Canadian Working Women in the 1920s, by VERONICA STRONG-BOAG, Labour/Le travailleur 4, pgs. 131–164, ISSN: 0700-3862 | 1979

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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