Want an old fashioned remedy to increase productivity? Why not have a little sing-along?
People hum in the shower or in the car, but what about singing in the office? Just imagine the operatic exchanges you could have with your boss.
“Bob, I need that sales report by Mon-day”
“It’ll be on your desk by fi-ve” you sing back, silently wondering where in the office libretto it names you as lead vocal for sales reports.
Can’t quite picture it? Well maybe no operatic exchanges ever took place in business, but company funded music used to actually be a thing.
Whose Idea Was This Anyway?
Singing during work comes naturally to most people. From the earliest times music has been a way to keep workers movements synchronized, reduce boredom, and increase productivity. Railway workers sang to keep track laying coordinated, Scottish women sang while fulling cloth, and African slaves sang in the field. Even our own Yankee doodle began as a Dutch harvest song. With the noise of industrialization, however, singing voices never made it passed the door.
Scientific management became a mantra for businesses after it’s popularization by Fredrick Taylor in 1909. How to increase productivity was a question in everyone’s minds, including Frank Gilbreth’s. (See Cheaper by the Dozen.) A little music might help, Frank told people, but the idea wasn’t taking off. It took the first world war to really get the idea going. Companies were looking for ways to get the maximum efficiency from their workers. Thrown into the mix was the Council of National Defense. Composed of mostly industry and labor leaders, the council was relied upon by President Woodrow Wilson to divide resources between the civilian and military worlds. With a vested interest in boosting productivity and limiting fatigue rest periods, which could include singing, were coming into vogue.
It Doesn’t Take a Genius
All that scientific mumbo jumbo just to figure out what department stores had known since the 1800s. John Wannamaker, for example, had an organ placed in his Philadelphia department store in 1876. Wannamaker liked his employees to start and end the day with a little ditty or two. Filene Department store in Boston likewise opened its doors early. Employees spent the time singing and dancing down the aisles. Such a joyous start made for more pleasant and efficient salespeople who kept a spring in their step throughout the day.
Of course, music was also used as a means of bringing in customers. Never the less, the part it played in lifting the morale of the worker was real. Besides Wannamakers and Filene’s, Chicago’s Marshall Field and New York’s Macys were two other department stores with employee bands and singers. Wanamakers had a total of ten different ensembles in order to accommodate different talents and tastes.
Well, that’s all fine for a bunch of women to get together and sing something fluffy and frilly. Hard working, sweat producing, dirt-encrusted men — never!
Think again mon ami.
Men, Sweat, and Music
In January 1915, American Iron and Steel devoted its newsletter to music in the workplace. Why? Well according to the Bulletin, men were often unsatisfied. Not because of low wages — that would be silly — but because of boredom. “These periods of idleness usually brought about disastrous results.” That’s why they couldn’t shorten work hours by the way. “Shorter hours may be a curse instead of a blessing,” remember that next time you have to work late. Still, they needed some way to keep the men involved in wholesome activities after hours
“Volumes. . . could be written on the moral and intellectual influence of good music,” according to Charles Hook, superintendent of the American Rolling Mill Company in Ohio. For that reason, the company had a minstrel chorus and a glee club among other things. Hook extolled the virtues of singing, saying the camaraderie made the co-workers, more like brothers creating a positive effect on the workers’ health and happiness.
American Rolling Mill wasn’t the only one to incorporate music into the lives of their workers. Many mining companies had bands, orchestras, and Glee clubs. Bethlehem steel had a pretty sweet band hall that they boasted was “Probably the handsomest and most completely equipped building of its kind in the United States.”
Kum-ba-yahing with the Company
That’s all fine and dandy, you might be saying to yourself, but that’s not the same as singing on the job. For that, you need look no further than the Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury, Connecticut. The company had been suffering from high turnover and a large number of accidents. After a two-year investigation begun in 1917, the company introduced singing periods. And yes, it did start among the women. It took time for some of the men to accept that singing wouldn’t diminish their manhood. Once they did, however, it was the grandest fifteen to twenty minutes of their day. Men would bring their instruments to practice after work for the next day’s sing along, while the singers took time to learn their parts in harmony. They liked it so much that when the management tried to replace the singing with lectures, the workers listened respectfully then asked to sing anyway.
It Ain’t Over ‘till it’s Over
“Properly selected music would stimulate any class of workers to greater action,” said the self-help author Napoleon Hill; and companies agreed. IBM, Ford Motor Company, Union Pacific, National Cash Register, Consolidated-Vultee Aircraft Corporation, Dodge Brothers; all had some type of music program for their employees. The golden age of company supported music however couldn’t last. With Wanamaker’s death in 1922, and the depression of the 1930’s people just weren’t in the mood for singing anymore.
Monies were shifted from employee programs to national advertising and relationships between managers and workers became more formal. Company orchestras and singing groups enjoyed periodical revivals, although many became independent community groups. What once was old has the habit of becoming new again, however. Some companies are once again realizing the benefits of office music rooms and company choirs. So, while your ability to sing falsetto may not be discussed at your next job interview, a little practice can’t hurt.
Notes and Sources:
first published in History Is Now, 2017
Singing at work: Italian Immigrants and Music in the Epoch of WWI Fernando Fasce for Italian Americana Vol 27, №2 (Summer 2009)