The telephone, patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, would eventually enable people to communicate with each other in all parts of the world, but at first, the few subscribers, mostly the wealthy and businesses, were not sure what to say into the new voice connector.
It had been an early practice for a caller to ring a bell, pause and then say “Are you there?” or “Are you ready to talk?” Thomas A. Edison suggested that one should simply say, “Hello” when the phone rang. As more phone connections were created during the 1880s and 1890s, a new occupation was created.
Calls needed to be connected manually from one subscriber to another. It became an almost exclusive new career for young, unmarried girls as ‘telephone operators’ during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but also young boys. Yet, females were considered to be patient and naturally more polite than males with a pleasant and appealing voice. Operators would be required to dress as ladies at all times with heels, hose, high necklines, low hemlines, little makeup and no exotic hairdos.
Thousands of women who were employed in this service were sometimes called ‘Hello Girls’ although they never really said ‘Hello’ when answering at the switchboard, but instead were instructed to say, “Number Please.” Salaries for operators in 1900 averaged about $7 for a work week of 11 hours a day for six days; by the 1920s, the ladies worked six days a week, nine hours a day and every other Sunday for $7.50 a day. The job required concentration, some dexterity and it was no doubt uncomfortable sitting on a hard stool all day, having to even ask permission for restroom privileges.
Modern technology by the mid-20th century caused the phasing out of the manual switchboard along with the ever familiar switchboard operator and the once friendly voice of the ‘Hello Girls’ politely requesting, “Number Please.” The last operator in a remote part of Maine was Susan Glines in 1982.
You may have had one or more relatives (an aunt, grandmother, etc) who were a switchboard operator. If the family came from a medium to small town, check with its local museum for any listing of its phone operators. It is worth researching to find out.
Photos: 1880s operators in New York; 1911 phone operator; and operators at a switchboard in 1940s.
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