Photographs, Operators

To the public, the human face of the telephone company was the operator. They were called everything from “Call Girls” to “The Voice with a Smile.” They were heroines in time of disaster, comfort to the lonely and afraid, and a polite voice to often grouchy customers. Operators reflected the mores and fashions of their time, as these pictures show.

#1 - boys
The first operators (1876-77) were teenage boys, who often engaged in horseplay and foul language. Telephone companies soon began hiring "girls" in order to present a more gentle image to customers.
#2 - emma nutt
In 1878, the first women operators, Emma and Stella Nutt, worked alongside boy operators in Boston. [photo from “Bold Experiment–the Telephone Story," 1958]
#3 - toll operators
In order to convince families to allow their daughters to go to work, telephone companies stood in loco parentis. This chief toll operator exhibits a maternal attitude toward her “girls.” c. 1900
#4 - school
Operators were well trained in switchboard technique and in deportment, before being allowed to work the boards. This group attends switchboard training in Denver. 1910
#5 - lounge
Telephone companies provided “retiring rooms” such as this one in the York exchange in Denver, for operators who felt unwell or needed a break. c. 1910
#6 - exercise
To relieve the tedium of the job, the Colorado Telephone Company required operators to do calisthenics. This is on the roof garden of Denver Main, at 14th and Curtis. 1912
#7 - santa fe
The switchboard in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 1921
#8 - champa office
Champa Exchange, Denver, Colorado. c. 1930
#9 - minneapolis
Intercepting operators, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1946
#10 - bobby soxers
Operators have always been a fashionable lot. Note the bobby sox and saddle shoes. 1951
#11 - omaha
Long Distance operators in Omaha, Nebraska. 1959
#12 - boys
In response to equal rights legislation, telephone companies began hiring for “non-traditional” jobs. This meant that women could become installers and repair technicians, while “boys” could once again be operators. c. 1970

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