Touted in its prime as the Harvard of secretarial schools, Katharine Gibbs sent white-gloved graduates to the captains of industry and leading figures of the 20th century, from Charles Lindbergh and Ronald Reagan to Arthur Fiedler.
The school, which at one time owned residence halls and classrooms in tony Back Bay neighborhoods, attracted graduates of the Seven Sisters colleges at a time when secretarial jobs were women’s main entry into the corporate, political, and nonprofit worlds.
Likened to boot camp, “Katie Gibbs” drilled young women in grammar and composition, the basics of business, accounting, law, and current events, as well as the social skills to move among kings and custodians.
Among its alumnae: actress Loretta Swit and TV correspondent Meredith Vieira.
Now, a peek into their world of typewriters and carbon paper — and white gloves — is on display at the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, on the campus of Regis College.
Henry Lukas, the Spellman’s education director, suggested the exhibit after running into a fellow history buff, Rose A. Doherty of Needham, who spent nearly half of her life connected with the school, from English teacher on the Boston campus in the late 1970s to administrator and head of the board of trustees.
“Part of my job is to get people to the museum who might not ordinarily come because they think it’s just a stamp museum,” Lukas said.
So, considering the millions of letters that the nearly 100,000 Gibbs graduates typed and mailed over a century, why not showcase the school at a stamp museum?
Widowed in 1909 Providence, 46-year-old Katharine Gibbs had to provide for herself and her two young sons after a life of privilege. She tried several trades before becoming manager of a secretarial school that she later bought. With the advent of the typewriter in the late 1800s, the secretarial field had became dominated by women, since companies could pay them less.
Competition among secretarial schools was fierce. Gibbs set hers apart by demanding perfection in technical skills, providing a well-rounded education, and running savvy marketing campaigns. By 1930, she had branched out to Boston and New York and was worth the equivalent of $1 million in today’s dollars, according to Doherty, who is the author of “Katharine Gibbs: Beyond the White Gloves,” published last year.
Despite the trademark white gloves, it was not a finishing school.
“A finishing school prepared women of leisure to live their lives with style,” she said. “Gibbs prepared women who were going to be working professionals.”
Still, the gloves, worn initially to protect hands from soot in coal-heated buildings, became an enduring symbol of a school and of a time.
The museum uses stamps to tell stories, from letters soldiers sent home to a stamped letter from the last voyage of the Hindenburg.
Besides stamps related to Gibbs graduates and their employers — and secretaries in general — the exhibit features Gibbs brochures, newsletters, yearbooks, and style and business manuals.
Doherty hopes that people leave the exhibit “with an appreciation for a school that taught people to produce quality work on demand, no excuses, no mistakes.”
She also hopes it bolsters appreciation for the role of secretary — which she notes comes from the Latin word for secret — as gatekeeper, workflow manager, and custodian of institutional memory.
“In the ’80s, we were still placing 95 percent of the students in jobs for which they were trained,” said Doherty. That’s why one of her students, Michelle Marcella, said she decided to pursue an associate’s degree at Gibbs rather than attend a four-year college.
Marcella, who still recalls the dread of the shorthand certification test she passed with just a week to spare, credits Gibbs with helping her to advance from file clerk into the managerial ranks at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Among her first big challenges was working on the hospital’s annual report. Besides proofing it for grammatical and typing errors, Marcella had to make sure the report was in plain English. That meant approaching eminent doctors and asking them to translate their writing. At 21, she said, “Gibbs gave me the background to feel comfortable and say, ‘Can we work on this, because I don’t get it.’ ”
Marcella, who later obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Northeastern University, is now manager of operations and finance of the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation at MGH.
After Gibbs died in 1934, her son Gordon took charge and continued to open branches across the country. The school remained in the family until it was purchased in the late 1960s by Macmillan Publishing.
Over the years, Gibbs broadened its offerings to include programs in digital media, graphic design, and the hospitality industry. As it underwent a series of corporate takeovers, the school loosened its academic standards and underwent federal scrutiny for its recruiting and financial aid practices.
In 2011, Gibbs closed its doors, at last succumbing to the computer age and the changing workplace.
“Women who would have gone to Gibbs in the 1950s were now going to law school and medical school,” Doherty said.