01 February 2011

An Ordinary Day In: The Life of a Telephone Operator

By Delia DeLeest

No matter how frustrated I get with my cell phone sometimes, I give thanks that technology has come as far as it has. Though we had a direct dial system when I was a kid, I can still remember having to deal with a live operator to make a long distance call...and gosh, I'm not that old!

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, job opportunities were pretty limited for women. Cook, maid or school teacher were most women's only options. Then there came telephones.

The first telephone operators were young boys, but it was soon evident that this wasn't a good idea. Put a group of twelve year old boys together in a room and there's going to be more wrestling and goofing off than work. Young boys weren't long on either patience or manners. It was soon discovered that women made the best operators, mainly due to the upbringing of the times. Girls/women were expected to sit still, be polite, well-mannered and docile--the perfect recipe for a job requiring long hours, tedious work and, often, rude customers.

As I said earlier, telephone operators worked in twelve hour shifts. There were strict rules on what you could and could not do while working as an operator. Most of them were of the not do variety. There was no leg-crossing allowed. They sat straight and tall, both feet on the floor. If they wanted to blow your nose or wipe your brow, no problem, as long as they asked for permission first. No glancing around the room or inspecting fingernails. Keep eyes on work alone, or risk being written up unfavorably in a deportment report. There was no idle chit-chat with the customers. Operators were given a list of phrases they were allowed to say, consisting of the "number please, hold please, one moment please" variety, with a thank-you thrown in for every other situation, even if a customer was cussing you out.

It's easy to see why women replaced young boys, isn't it? Not only were the women better behaved and more polite, it was also discovered that they did the job quicker and more efficiently.

In 1880, only four years after phones were unveiled at the 1876 Centennial Celebration, there were phone connections in every city of over ten thousand people and more than sixty thousand phones connected across America. These numbers grew at an amazing rate, as did the need for operators to connect all those calls buzzing around the country.

Every operator worked in a central office. There were a couple different kinds of phone calls. First, and easiest, to connect were inter central office calls. These were local calls between lines connected at the same central office. Connecting them was simply a matter of plugging the line into the jack on the control board corresponding to the proper customer wishing to be contacted. These are today's local calls.

Other calls requiring a connection to a different central office required the work of two or more operators to connect. The local operator would connect to the 'trunk' of a different central office and request that the operator there make the connection to the desired party. Of course, an operator had a limited number of trunk lines to connect to, so the farther away you wished to reach, the more people would be involved in connecting the phone call.

Let's say you were living in New York City and wanted to call your cousin in Baltimore. You would pick up your phone and request a connection to your cousins number. Once the operator had the information, you hung up your phone and waited. Your local New York operator might have to contact the operator in Trenton, New Jersey, who, in turn, might have to connect to an operator in Philadelphia, who finally gets the Baltimore operator who can connect you to your cousin.

Once your cousin answered, your local operator would call you and tell you your call was connected and you were free to discuss grandma's gall bladder surgery or your plans for Thanksgiving Dinner. In 1918, the average time to connect a long distance call was fifteen minutes.

As the years went on, technology slowly phased out the need for operators. First you were able to make your own local calls. When automatic number identification was invented, phone companies were able to automatically connect and bill callers. Before that, long distance calls were put in an operator queue where the operator would request the calling party's number, where it was written on a party toll ticket (which is what I remember doing as a kid). Those calls were then added up and put on the customer's monthly bill. Once the operator had your number, she was able to automatically complete your long distance connection.

Very seldom do we now need an operator's assistance when making a phone call, but a hundred years ago, it was a very personalized procedure. Maybe if we still had to wait fifteen minutes to make a phone call, we'd have a more relaxed, calmer society. Then again, I get antsy if it takes an internet page too long to download, so maybe a fifteen minute phone connection wouldn't do my blood pressure any favors.

Delia DeLeest is fascinated by all things 1920s. She suspects she was once a flapper or, more probably, a bootlegger in a previous life. Her third 1920s era book, NOT LOOKING FOR TROUBLE, is being released from The Wild Rose Press at the end of October.