Just when secretaries originated no one knows exactly. It stands to reason that the role arose out of the natural need for a prominent person to whom confidential matters could be entrusted and who could act as an assistant for a principal person. It is known that secretaries existed in Rome prior to the establishment of the empire. They were usually educated men who took dictation as "scribes," and oftentimes acted as trusted advisors.
Before the invention of parchment and reed pens, tools of the trade for scribes ranged from chisels used upon stone to styluses used on clay, wood or wax tablets. Shorthand became part of the preparation and training of secretaries (and emperors as well, including Julius Caesar and Augustus).
In early modern times, members of the nobility had secretaries, who functioned quite similarly to those of the present day. They were always men; most had command of several languages, including Latin, and were required to have what we would consider today as a broad, generalized education.
As commerce and trade expanded, people of wealth and power needed secretaries (confidants and trusted agents) to handle correspondence on private or confidential matters, most particularly matters of state.
Following the Renaissance, men continued to dominate clerical and secretarial roles. They maintained account books, in addition to performing stenographic duties, and were known for their exemplary penmanship skills. Many labored long hours, with their "secretary" desks serving as their files and workstations.
As world trade expanded in the 15th and 16th centuries, secretaries often attained an elevated status and held prominent positions. Secretarial status titles frequently included "personal" or "private."
Men continued to dominate the secretarial field until the late 1880s. During the industrial expansion at the turn of the century, business offices faced a paperwork crisis. More and more women entered the office workforce in various clerical roles, and they adapted well to new technologies such as the adding machine, telephone and typewriter. Many women held, or aspired to hold, positions as secretaries. They attended secretarial schools and worked to attain superior skills.
In the 1930s, the number of men with the title secretary dwindled. Women dominated the office workforce. Some were promoted from steno pools, some were graduates of business colleges or secretarial schools, but all were seeking the professional status and pay previously enjoyed by their male counterparts.
Today, secretaries (also known as administrative assistants, office coordinators, executive assistants, office managers, and various other titles) are using computers, the Internet and other advanced office technologies to perform vital "information management" functions in the modern office.
Secretaries have taken on roles and responsibilities well beyond being just "typists" for "the boss". Now, they often write that correspondence, as well as plan meetings, organize data using spreadsheet and database management software, interact with clients, vendors and the general public, supervise the office and other staff, handle purchasing and even train other workers.
In addition, many companies are providing performance-based bonuses to outstanding administrative support professionals to help acknowledge their contributions.
The future is bright for computer-literate, well-educated, customer-service-savvy administrative professionals.