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What was it like to be a telephone operator? Behind the scenes in the early switchboard days

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My experience as a telephone operator (1899)

A Sunday Call reporter obtains employment as a “Hello girl” in order to try the nerve-wearing labor and study the lives of the operators while at their work.

by Marian West – The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, Calif.) August 20, 1899

The telephone building does not look like a sweatshop. A sweatshop usually means low ceilings, no windows and foul-smelling air, the huddled heap of human beings occupying one-half the sanitary space that should be allotted per person.

A sweatshop, moreover, means long, health-breaking hours at wages that breed sin and crime and dishonesty. Ceaseless toil at starvation pay is the sweatshop master’s motto.

There are mental sweatshops, where mind is tortured at expense of body. Under this class comes the telephone office.

I know whereof I speak. I have spent one week of my life in the telephone office. For four days and three nights, I lived the life of the hello girl.

Vintage telephone operators (2)

The “Hello Girl,” or a telephone switchboard operator

The telephone office does not stoop to the first requirement of a sweatshop. The rooms are large, light and well-ventilated. But the hours and the wages are those of the sweatshop. By avoiding the stigma attached to the first, it escapes the calumny that would be heaped upon the second.

Sweatshops are usually located in the by-ways. They shun the observing eyes of the curious or charitable. The telephone offices meet the passer-by boldly in principal thoroughfares. The main office, on Bush Street, in imposing disguise of brick and stone, defies detection as a sweatshop.

The master of the telephone company courts visitors. Some of his subscribers receive written invitations to go through the telephone building and examine the workings of the system. The building leaves nothing to be desired in the matter of comfortable conveniences, and gives no opportunity for criticism.

There are two questions, however, which the pleasant official, who is taking you through, will avoid. He will keep you so interested in other things that you may not think of asking them. He will walk you up and down the long room where the operators sit at their boards. He will let you listen to them say “Number?” then deftly place the plug and give the switch. He will tell you anything you choose to ask about the intricacies of making a switch.

He will take you down to the room where “Sunset,” by the turn of her hand, makes it possible for people hundreds of miles apart to speak to each other. He will explain to you how this is accomplished. He will escort you to the big lunch room, where the company provides a luncheon for the girls, and into the sitting room, attractive with its restful, easy chairs.

Then you may happen to ask these questions: “What hours do the girls have?” and “What pay do they receive?”

If you do, to the first interrogation the officer responds: “Oh, their hours are all different; they are coming and going all day.” To the second he says: “They are paid according to their ability as operators — advanced as they improve.”

You leave the official imbued with the idea that the life of the telephone girl must almost be as pleasant as that of the harp players of heaven.

Vintage telephone operators (1)

Not a pleasant existence

You haven’t found out what hours the girls have nor what pay they receive, but if you give it a second thought, you will feel sure that a company which seems to provide so well for the comforts of its employees doubtless has a fair schedule of working hours and a just payroll.

Which two things the telephone company has not. These are the rocks upon which the company founders judged from the humanitarian standpoint. The telephone company criminally overworks the girls and shamelessly underpays them. I say this in the fullness of a seven-days’ working knowledge among them. I went into the telephone company unbiased and without malice aforethought.

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A wave of sympathy for the telephone girl has followed in the wake of the recent suicides. It was not until several girls sought death by the poison route that the popular feeling toward the telephone girl changed. Her cause is being championed, but, alas! neither wisely nor well.

These are the main facts with which the champions assail the company. The telephone girls must wear either black or blue dresses. If they wear shirt waists, they must be white. Color is tabooed. The telephone girls cannot speak to each other while working. They cannot say one word more than is absolutely necessary to the subscriber. They are under the constant surveillance of the chief operators. The spy system makes their lives miserable.

These are the main complaints which well-meaning citizens are carrying to the company. These are the harrowing reasons, couched in plausible phrases, which are set forth as the causes of suicide among the telephone girls.

1899 - Why does the telephone girl commit suicide

My first day on the job as a switchboard telephone operator

The first day that I spent in the telephone office, I shall always remember as one of the black-letter unpleasant days in my calendar. I lived in constant terror of meeting an acquaintance who would reveal that I was there under an assumed name. This would bring odium upon the benefactor to whom I owed the opportunity of working in the telephone office at a salary of nil for two weeks, and $20 a month thereafter.

I was assigned to Sunset office, which has its own room in the big building. I came at 8 in the morning, and was allowed to use the elevator. For some unfathomed reason, the company allows the girls to ride in the elevator if they go up during the early morning hours. At all other times, up or down, they must foot the two marble and four rubber flights of stairs.


The chief operator gave me a cap and a seat. My sole duty that day was to listen to the operator next to me in order to learn the method of answering a subscriber. At 12 o’clock, I had half an hour for lunch. There were about thirty girls in the lunch room, where tea, beans, bread and butter were placed on heaping platters by the matron. A number of girls had brought additions to fill out the menu offered by the company. But there was plenty to eat and it was of the best quality.

At 3 o’clock, I was given a ten-minute recess, which I spent in the sitting-room. Two or three girls were standing before a bulletin board. “Have you read this?” asked one. “Oh, I beg pardon, I thought it was Grace.”

Vintage telephone operator

I told them that I was in Sunset office, and they immediately introduced themselves and plied me with questions and advice.

“You want to watch this bulletin,” said one. “You can always find out why the last girl was dismissed. They write the rule which she has broken on here as a warning.”

“It will take you two weeks to learn if you’re quick,” said another. “That’s the time most girls need. Really, though, it takes a year or so to make a good operator, doesn’t it, girls? Well, my recess is up, I must go.”

So was mine, and I went back to “Sunset” office, to the cap that irritated me, the receiver with its film of sickening moisture, and the silence that galled. There isn’t any denying that it is hard not to be allowed to speak. But there isn’t any denying that this stringent rule is necessary to have good telephone service. There isn’t any doubt that gowns of sober hue look far better than the motley assortment of shoddy finery that would surely crop up were it not for this rule.

Vintage telephone operators

The two chief operators I thought unnecessarily “bossy.” They gave their orders or asked questions in strident, aggressive voices that rasped. Several times I took off my cap to wipe out the moisture. “You’ll have to stop that,” said one of the “ladies” — which title the chief operators have earned by right of might.

Late in the afternoon one of the “ladies” called out a name in a voice that menaced ill for the owner. Twice she repeated it, the second time with uglier inflection. Then I realized that it was my adopted name.

“You can go now, it is five. Come tomorrow night at 9:30, and be sure that you are on time.”

I had expected, from her tone, to be sent to Coventry, instead it was the signal, ungraciously given, that my day’s work was over. I had been in the office nine hours, with thirty minutes for luncheon and ten minutes recess. Every nerve in my body was crying for rest. The constant strain of sitting erect, keeping the eyes glued straight ahead, and the ears attuned, exhausts beyond belief.

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The second day as a telephone operator

At 9:30 the next night, I was again at the board. Through shifting my time thus I had gained an unusual rest. Until 12 o’clock we worked under the same rigid rules that held good during the daytime. At 12, the chief operator left and one of the regular operators took charge. We were now allowed to talk to our neighbors. From 12 until 5 in the morning, Sunset is rarely busy.

It was torture for me to keep awake. The hours seemed days. At 5 in the morning, however, the fruitmen began calling for numbers, and their Dago-Franco-Hispano-Americano kept me on the guess and awake. At 7:30 we parted, a band of hollow-eyed girls looking ghastly in the sickly morning sun that struggled through the fog.

Vintage telephone operators (3)

The third day behind the switchboard

The next night, only the thought that I would be allowed to make my first switch made me return to the office. It was impossible for me to interchange the sleeping and waking hours of years’ habit. I had tried to sleep during the day without success. A severe cold and a violent headache made life seem anything but pleasant.

I had been there perhaps half an hour when the chief operator ordered me to take off my ribbon stock. In a moment of forgetfulness, I had put on a pale blue ribbon with my black gown.

I meekly took it off and straightaway commenced to sneeze. To a polite request to be permitted to replace the ribbon, I was informed that I had no business wearing a colored ribbon, and that it was my own funeral if I caught my death of cold. I asked that I be allowed to go down to the lockers and get my black boa. “You can get it at your recess; you’ll stay where you are now,” was the reply.

I made two switches that night and was beginning to understand the system — even to recognize some of the bells of out-of-town Sunset offices.

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The fourth day as a telephone operator

The next afternoon, I went down to the office to ask to be put on the day force, for I could not stand the night work. I was told if I couldn’t stand the work, there were others who could.

Health-breaking work of the telephone girl

It is only by actual experience that one can realize the health-breaking work of the telephone girl. I should never have believed it without going through it myself. Scarcely a day passes that some girl does not faint at her work.

The telephone system requires peculiar nerve-wearing labor. Mr Sabin requires one girl to suffer nine hours of it.

The telephone system cannot be changed. But Mr Sabin can reduce the number of hours and put the telephone office on a plan above the sweatshop.

As long as there are girls in the world who have to work, Mr Sabin will find no difficulty filling the positions, though he increased the hours to ten.

A telephone girl should not be made to work over seven hours a day including the thirty minutes for luncheon. This would necessitate an additional force of operators at $20 a month.

Perhaps it would be worthwhile. Then if a telephone girl committed suicide, Mr Sabin could plead not guilty at the bar of her soul.



Hello! The life of a telephone girl

From The New York Times (New York, NY) June 11, 1899

The average man might do much worse than court a telephone girl of New York. This is an opinion carefully formed after a study of the various exchanges, after several sessions of listening in by the side of one and another in active service, after chats here and there with chief operators.

For the Miss behind the telephone, whose voice is most frequently heard in the query, “What number, please?” — she is, as a rule, a slip of a girl, barely twenty oftentimes — is a very capable young person, indeed. The writer feels inclined to put her at the head of New York’s army of working girls, for her brisk intelligence, her gentle ways, and the deft way she uses her small hands.

Of course, the general public cannot bear testimony as to the accuracy of the latter. All he really knows of the telephone girl of New York is her voice. He may conjure up–he probably does — some radiant, frivolous being who has two amusements in her life — to flirt over the wire and to “talk back.” He — the general public — has never seen the telephone girl at work, and hence he is excusable.

Actually, the telephone girls of New York are attractive, but not markedly so when taken as a lump. They do not lend themselves particularly to romance. They are skillful, however, which is much more to the point when a telephone switchboard comes to be taken into account. For of all inventions of man, there is nothing that has more of the unexpected, the sudden, the immediate rush about it than the bunch of wires that land in front of each telephone girl and keep her busy interminably.

New York telephone girls 1899

The telephone operator: She must be alert

The woman in front of the wire is like the man behind the gun — she has to be alert. There are no hostages given to frivolousness in a telephone exchange — the strictest attention is needed. A dozen calls may come upon her in half as many moments, and her brain, eye, and hand are taxed to supply the combinations asked for.

Behind each ten girls or so goes Argus in the person of a supervisor, a being promoted from the ranks of everyday telephone girls, who can both see and hear whatever her charges may be doing. This supervisor has a record of her own to make. She is hoping for further promotion, a jump to the post of monitor.

The monitors — the largest exchange in the city has four of them — sit at desk switchboards and have inquiries referred to them, and connections to make that the regular operators have not been able, for one of a dozen different reasons, to accomplish. Besides this, they listen in secretly upon the various girls in the room, a girl never knowing when the thin little wire is spying upon her.

Old-fashioned telephone operators

Altogether, the Miss at the exchange end of the telephone is a healthy, hearty, happy young woman, whose privileges are many, and whose labors are not so severe, though incessant and taxing. She can get a relief whenever she asks for it, always provided she is not trying to soldier, to get out of working, and she has as her daily right twenty minutes of rest during each morning and twenty during each afternoon.

During these rests, she may go in the parlor of her exchange and gossip with such other girls as happen to be off duty, or she may curl up in a big wicker rocking chair and read the illustrated papers provided for her, these being kept fully up to date. In comparison with the other working girls of the city, the lot is not a hard one.

It is not with the complex wires and their system, the electrical adjustments by virtue of which you, A, get B half a dozen miles away, but with the human force that deftly binds for her seat the scattered, innumerable wires, this telephone girl, that the present writer is concerned.

New York telephone girls 1899

More than a thousand telephone operator girls in New York

There are some 1,200 telephone girls in New York — between 1,100 and 1,200 at the lowest estimate. Exact figures are impossible for the reason that the number climbs upward each week. Students are continually being taken on, and so expertly is the wheat winnowed from the chaff when applicants are examined that few turn out anything but very good operators, and are retained.

Mere man cuts a small figure in telephoning to-day, in the exchanges at all events the clicks of the cams at each long switchboard echo to the rustle of skirts. The coat masculine is hardly to be noticed. Such of these coats as are to be seen are worn by the manager and his assistants, the only men besides the artisans that at intervals, tool-laden, appear from behind the switchboard.

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At night in two or three of the exchanges men are the working force. But the masculine proportion grows smaller as the years go on. There are hardly fifty men in the entire exchange service to-day, the most of these night workers only. Here is the one industry outside the much-heralded “home sphere” in which femininity is supreme.

An exchange presents an interesting sight. About three sides of the great room, reaching very nearly to the ceiling, set in a structure that reminds one of an inner shell or wall, is a switchboard, with its projecting ledge. Along it, as closely as comfort will allow, are girls, and yet more girls.

Telephone girls - Phone operators June 1898 (2)

In a never-broken line they stretch on, over a hundred at a time, in an exchange like Cortlandt, girls tall and short, full-fledged women and round-faced lassies just out of the schoolroom, girls of dainty face and contour, and girls whom fate has dealt less kindly with, girls half-shabby and girls of pretty costume with wonderful little aprons about their waists. Nothing more or less than a concourse of youthful femininity that interests because of the marked diversity of the types shown.

They are not the girls of the factory, nor yet of the shops. That a better class than this can claim them, certainly a good proportion, is evident. There is more intelligence about their movements, a better eye and a better ear, hands that move with more deftness. The own sisters of half of them may, it is true, be the salesladies encountered in any of the department stores, but these are picked young women, and their order, just as their skill, is higher.

One thing the visitor to an exchange notes before all. Half a hundred, a hundred, girls sit so close together that their frocks touch, and yet not a word of gossip is heard. The room is almost a silent one. A step close to the switchboard makes you conscious of click after click, and the low-spoken words of the operators in answer to each call. That is absolutely all.

If it were permitted to chat with subscribers, to gossip with each other, the telephone girls would have no time. It is nothing unusual for an expert operator to answer 125 calls an hour. She may even answer 150, or two and a half a minute. On the trunk lines, where the process is simpler and where exchanges are joined (a man on Broad wanting to speak to a man on Thirty-eighth Street, for example), as many as 600 connections are often made in an hour.

Sometimes for five full minutes, it is a mad race with the girl at the case to attend to all the demands made upon her. Perhaps, at certain hours of the day, things may calm down, and her hands, for a moment or two, lie idly in her lap. But even then she must be on the que vive for new calls, her eyes on the lookout.

Contrary to the belief of the public, a bell does not warn the telephone girl when the customer rings up “central.” A little metal disk falls, displaying the subscriber’s number, and that only, with no sound, with hardly a stir.

Watching the telephone operator work the switchboard

To see the girl at her work, to observe her quick, delicate, never-hesitating movements, is a pastime fascinating to the extreme. Fastened to her ear by a flexible metal band that slips over her hair and is so light that it is hardly to be noticed is her head receiver. When before the case she never takes this off. A cord runs from it, the other end being a plug which is slipped into a jack, or hole in the switchboard’s ledge. In front of her hangs a mouthpiece suspended on cords. Thus the girl’s hands are free and she can move with great ease.

Before her are two panels of the long switchboard, these a mass of metal holes, the jacks. There are hundreds of these holes in all, and each signifies one particular telephone. Below is a row of disks, one of which will drop when a subscriber rings off. On the ledge are the plugs, each on the end of a long flexible wire, the connecting cord. Then come rows of calling circuit buttons, enunciator drops, cams, and ringing buttons, the cams being little levers that the girl must raise to hear.

For convenience, that the telephone girls may be able to handle the hundreds of combinations better, three girls work together in a section, being known as A, B, and C.

This is to save a girl from having to jump up from her seat to reach a far distant hole, or jack. At the mere mentioning of a number one or the other of her partners will insert the plug she pushes over.

New York telephone girls 1899

Simple enough in theory, the work gets complicated when call follows call in rapid succession. Yet the telephone girl keeps her head.

One of the disks of a drop falls, and the number is displayed. Quick as thought, the girl takes up a plug (which itself fits in a hole, its long cord falling even below the floor,) and sticks it sharply in the hole whose number corresponds with the number on the disk. At the same instant, she has thrown the little lever on a line with the plug’s hole, and is already asking “What number, please?”

If the number that comes to her ears is of the same exchange, what remains to be done is simple. The plugs spoken of go in pairs. She has only to pull out its mate, and push it in the proper hole. Then throwing another cam, she presses the corresponding ringing button. That rings the bell for the party called. She listens sharply for an instant, then announcing “All right. Go ahead.”

Woman on antique telephone

Her swiftly flying fingers are already busy with another call. One of her subscribers has called for a number on another exchange. She has the plug for his wire already in place, of course, but a more complicated connection is now to be made.

She presses a calling circuit button on the ledge. This brings to her aid another operator, a girl at the Trunk Line switchboard, of the distant exchange. “1029 Broad,” she remarks quietly through her transmitter.

More quickly than the word can be written a number comes back, 10. This is the number of the hole in her switchboard in to which her second plug must go to get the Broad Street connection. The plug is slipped in, the cam thrown, the ringing button pressed. Two more people have bridged space, two more lines of cord stretch over the switchboard, and several more calls are underway.

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That is telephoning, from the telephone girl’s point of view. The great world without is little but a mass of numbers, to the tune of many thousands, any two of which may have to be brought together, and not a second’s warning…

The plugs and their connecting cords have not only to be put up, they must be taken down as well. The telephone girl has to keep track of the conversations and learn when the talkers are through. If they ring off as they should, a drop falls, a sign that the plugs may be pulled out. The cords, weighted at the bottom, return automatically into their holes.

Everyone does not ring off, however. The girl must keep track of the wires she has put up, and inquire; if it is a message rate subscriber, as is generally the case, she must make a record of each call on a ticket.

Telephone girls - Phone operators June 1898 (1)

Some switchboards vary in details of arrangement from others, the girls on the trunk lines operate somewhat differently, but the above, in the main, estimating the number of calls each girl will get a day at from 500 to 600, gives an idea of the telephone girl’s round.

Up in the new Riverside Exchange, in West Eighty-ninth Street, a new system has been installed. When a subscriber calls (he does not need to ring, the telephone girl is notified by the mere act of his taking the receiver off the hook) a tiny electric lamp under his jack in the switchboard is at once lighted. All the telephone girl has to do is to stick the plug in and ask for the number wanted. Another light shows that the man called for has responded. No lights at all show after the connection is made, but when the talk is over and the receivers are hung up, yet another lamp glows.

As one stands in the Riverside Exchange and watches the ledge down its length, these lights twinkle, rise and fade in a rapid succession of changing dots. It seems a keyboard played upon by the white fingers of the telephone girls, where, instead of music, colors — red and yellow — in brilliant effects and combinations hurry forth and die out like vanishing fireflies…

It is in the early morning, when it is the duty of each girl to ring up all of her subscribers and find if the wires are in good working order for the business of the day…

In the downtown exchanges, where clerks respond to the call most frequently, and where all is brisk commerce, the telephone girl briefly asks: “Telephone all right?” The answer is oftener than otherwise simply “Yep!”

But in the residence districts, where the house telephones abound, such a short query would never do. The girls have learned this of their own accord. In their sweetest, most “society like” tones, they ask: “Good morning, Mrs. Robinson. Excuse me for troubling you, but I just wanted to know if your telephone was working nicely this morning.

The question is met in the same polite spirit in which it is asked, and frequently Mrs Robinson will reply at some length. She comes to know and really feel a definite interest in her telephone girl, and the interest is reciprocated…

The girls at the Thirty-eighth Street Exchange enjoy another sort of experience — a multitude of the pay station people, some of whom, even in this late day and generation, have quite evidently never used a telephone before.

It is wonderful, these girls say, how many of these people there still are. Men and women alike ring up, and there they stop, so far as the proper using of a telephone goes. They give a name and address instead of a number, and Miss Telephone has to patiently instruct them…

Vintage telephone operators (4)

Thirty-Eighth Street is, besides, the great exchange for evening calls, a “rush hour” there being from 6 to 8, during the time of New York’s dining and just before the theaters “go in…”

The word busy opens up an interesting question. How does a girl know? So far as her own switchboard is concerned, she can tell easily, of course, but a subscribers wire actually terminates in a score and more different switchboards, in every section of three switchboards in fact.

An ingenious bit of mechanism tells the girl whether any other girl is using that number. As she touches the outer edge of the hole or jack with the plug, a slight rumbling sound comes to her ears. This means engaged, occupied. She must keep the call in her head, and try for the number again. No girl would ever think of reporting “busy” if she could possibly make the connection. It would simply waste her time.

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Many women engaged in telephone operator jobs

There are, besides the girls at the cases, several especially detailed in each exchange to count up the checks for calls. At the toll-check table at Thirty-eighth Street, eight girl clerks count 24,000 checks a day. These girls receive the same rates of pay as the girls actually operating.

A telephone girl starts in as a student at $3 a week, listening in at first, and finally taking the case in slack hours. She is raised gradually according to her capacity until in two or three years, if she is bright and quick, she reaches the top of operatorhood, $9 a week.

The supervisors get about a dollar a week more, the pay of monitors is $12. An expert chief operator can rise to about $18. No girl has yet risen from student to the heights of ordinary operatorhood in less than a year and a half.

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