The Changing Workplace: The Brownlee Papers/Dewees Department Store Collection

Friday, May 28, 2010

Experts in generational studies have a wide range of hypotheses about what separates the millennial generation of today from their parents and grandparents, but one theme that commonly emerges concerns manners. Some have argued that young people today lack the polite respect that their predecessors, drilled to instinctively use the monikers "sir" and "ma'am," held as crucially important, especially in the workplace. Institutional psychologists have drawn up a great body of new work that helps older managers cater to a generation that has no compunctions about listening to music at the desk and get the most production out of it. In short, it is hard to find "good help" these days. Perhaps one drop in the ocean of this change has to do with the disappearance of simple employee "checks." One such self-evaluation for the B. F. Dewees Department Store in Philadelphia from 1957 included such questions as the following:

• Am I what is commonly called a well-groomed person?

• Am I always ready to work at the starting time?

• Do I take a genuinely friendly interest in my customers?

• Do I truly know the merchandise I am selling?

• Can I accept criticism…without resentment?

• Is my memory good?

• Can necessary detail work without being told?

• Do I have a pleasing approach?

• Do I…give my full attention and effort to my job?

Kay Brownlee (second from left) at Dewees event, June 7, 1960This self-evaluation comes from the business and personal memoirs of Kay Brownlee, contained in the Brownlee Papers/Dewees Department Store Collection at Hagley Library. Brownlee, as illustrated in her collection, can perhaps be viewed as an ideal employee of the post-war period. Though she did not complete college with a degree in one specialty or another, she was a friendly, sharp, and active worker that modeled good salesmanship and expected it of the younger workers she oversaw as personnel director.

This collection contains many types of memos and reminders that consistently remind employees of their role and of their expectations in that role. The collection hints at the evolving definition of the term "professional."  While today "professional" can be interpreted to mean specially-trained in technical skills in one area or another -- i.e., a professional engineer is such because he or she has a bachelor’s/master’s/doctoral degree in engineering -- it can still credibly refer to an appropriate, respectful manner in the workplace. The difference today is that the younger generation does not always realize the relevance of this latter definition until they actually enter the workplace.

The managers of Dewees Department Store expected that their employees would show up on time, regard everyone with respect, not make a nuisance of themselves, and perform good work. Brownlee was an example of a worker who entered an unfamiliar industry and, with hard work, earned a management position that saw her to retirement.

The postwar era workplace was highly regimented. At the Dewees Department Store, elevator hostesses could not leave their elevators except at rigidly set times, and could not sit down, and personal calls were certainly not allowed on store phones (unlike today, there were no exceptions!). However, there were scheduled opportunities for fun as well. Dozens of pages of paperwork and several memorable items in the collection pertain to Christmas and summer leisure events for all employees. Both of these things, arguably, are fading from the modern workplace, as individual workers are becoming more specialized and as communities -- even those of colleagues -- become more dispersed and impersonal.

The Brownlee Papers/Dewees Department Store collection offers other dimensions for research on the postwar American department store workplace. The role of women in the workplace is a frequent theme in many items. Brochures and booklets attest to the state of consumerism and the many "wants" of contemporary American buyers. A detailed finding aid is available online.

Please contact the Hagley Manuscripts and Archives department for more information: or 302-658-2400 ext 330.

For more information about the Hagley Library, visit

By Alex Billings, public history intern from the University of Delaware