It’s a typical day. It’s 8:30am and you’re rising from bed, running to start the coffee machine and then settling in for a good day’s work—right at your very own home office.

From 2000 to 2010, at-home workers were one of the biggest growing sectors in the U.S., with a 69% increase in just ten years. Don’t think that’s a lot? It’s the difference between 9.2 million and 13.4 million in just a small amount of time. That’s a whole lot of IKEA office stations being put together by helpless boyfriends and friendly neighbors with a tool kit.

And while it may seem like the Internet is all to blame for us reclining in our striped button-up pyjamas while we conduct our Monday morning department head conference call, it turns out the history of working at home is about as old as you can imagine.

The Original Work-At-Homers

As modern as the word “telecommute” seems, this synonym for plopping down on the couch and phoning it in is based on the ancient tradition of growing a home garden, just like Man did over 10,000 years ago.

When our ancestors discovered there was something to planting seeds instead of the old hunter-gatherer technique they used for most of human history, the “workhome” was born. No longer was humanity tied down to whatever they could find on the tundra, or the desert, or the plains, but to what they could successfully grow in their own backyard.

And while It’s hard to think about the computer workstations in our home offices as similar to anything as prehistoric as early farming, the tools of the Stone Age were very similar to those we use today, in that they advanced technology and work processes forward for the next thousand years, leading to the Neolithic Revolution, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, and later the Iron Age.

With the development of tools, people started expanding on what the word “career” meant; building the idea of human civilization, with painting, pottery, and smarter hunting, and branching out into that great thing we call culture. It’s weird  to think it all started with the idea of working from home and planting here and there, but in it’s own way, it’s why humans were able to create the first records of their own lives, like how we see at Lascaux.

The Transition Period

The Iron Age, which didn’t end until 1957 when Sputnik was launched into space, was what we call most of modern history. Everything from the Roman Empire right up to the end of World War II and the Beginning of the Baby Boomers is where the work-at-home complex changed most dramatically.

Up through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment in Europe, Western Civilization, as well as its Eastern counterpart, benefited fromgoods and services that were easily rendered within the homestead. From seamstresses to bakers, shoemakers to bookstore owners, the housing station naturally accommodated everything from general store stock to the actual livestock come winter.

And if it doesn’t seem too different from the window desk outfitted with a lamp and a Mac Air we’re familiar with now, it’s because it wasn’t. Customers called at your home, and you either went upstairs after closing hours for a little shut eye, or just closed your back room during the day. The exceptions to these rules were members of court (who consequently, worked in the King & Queen’s home), the army (you slept in the field you fought on right?), and things like traveling salesmen (The Silk Road Diaries).

Things really started to change during the Industrial Revolution, when the whole world mechanized and the new things like the steam engine, the telegraph, the spinning jenny, and advanced mining practices meant most of the family was out of the home getting their paycheck. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone; 30% of the population of coal miners in the UK were under the age of 20. Even the kids didn’t get a break.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the growth of modern warfare, and increasing technological advances, most of the world has led a slightly bottom balance of working at home and working in the field, with many households operating with a sole breadwinner (usually the man of the house) bringing home the bacon, and the woman raising the kids, and not many people working out of the home anymore.

Modern Warfare

What we’ve come to think of as modern stay-at-home workers really grew out of the late twentieth century with creatives in metro areas like New York, London, and Paris reverting back to the Medieval way of doing things—with studio apartments that doubled as work space and living areas. And the new craze is to beat the 9-5 rigors by setting up shop at home has stuck ever since, and has gotten easier and easier (and cheaper and cheaper) with the rise of the Internet and all of its remote and globalization capabilities.

Nowadays, anyone with access to the internet and a computer capable of running a basic word processor can start their own online business. There are hundreds of guides on how to make money online (eg. here and here) and for those who find success with it, even tools to scale those digital businesses to levels of profitability that are far beyond the realm of everyday workers.

Even with the fancy gadgets like tablets, Instagram, and Hosted PBX that allow our bosses to keep us connected to the Cloud, we’re not so far removed from our predecessors who dropped a bean off the front porch and called it a day.

So it doesn’t matter if you fancy yourself a Carrie Bradshaw or a self-starting Andy Warhol, Mr. Cro-Magnon beat you to it—about 27,000 years ago. But at least he probably didn’t get to sport those killer bunny slippers you reserve for particularly nasty bouts of Hump Day; that is absolutely a very, very modern luxury.

Written by History Cooperative
The History Cooperative is a collective of history buffs, interested authors, and dedicated technical staff who share a love for history. If you would love to help share this love, you can start by filling out a contribution form here.