Operator, ring me up

Posted by | May 15, 2017

In 1879, just 3 years after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated the telephone, the Behrens brothers established West Viriginia’s first telephone line, connecting two of their grocery stores in Wheeling. A year later, on May 15, 1880, the city established one of the first telephone exchanges in the country. A switchboard was set up in the basement of the People’s Bank to serve 25 subscribers. Wheeling’s original telephone technology only allowed customers to make local calls. Subscribers couldn’t place a call to nearby Pittsburgh until a long distance line was strung in 1883.

During the early 1880s, switchboards and lines were installed in Parkersburg, Moundsville, and Clarksburg. By the turn of the century, much of northern West Virginia had been linked to the major cities of surrounding states.

Telephone technology developed more slowly in southern West Virginia. Although Charleston and Huntington had telephone exchanges by the early 1880s, long distance service did not begin until 1897. To accommodate southern West Virginia’s growing population and expanding industry, Charleston became the hub of the state’s communication services in the early 1900s.

Below left: Late 19th and early 20th-century telephones, including the tombstone (rear left), battery box wall model (rear center), and Strowger dial phone (right front). This group of telephones shows the changing design of instruments from the late 19th through the early 20th century. Note that the earlier telephones have no dials. Dialing a number only became possible after automated equipment was developed to make connections originally handled by human operators.

19th and early 20th-century telephonesAlmost all telephone operators were women. But not all women could be operators. To be an operator, a woman had to be unmarried, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six. She had to look prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach the top of the tall telephone switchboard. Much like many other American businesses at the turn of the century, telephone companies unfairly discriminated against people from certain ethnic groups and races. African American and Jewish women were not allowed to become operators.

Because women were generally discriminated against, operators’ wages were low. And operators seldom got the respect they deserved. The typical operator earned about $7 per week — a small salary even in 1900. She worked ten or eleven hours a day, six days a week. If necessary, she also worked nights and holidays. An operator who got married was forced to leave her job. To many early telephone users — most of whom were wealthy — the telephone operator was just another household servant.

telephone switchboard operatorPhotograph of a female telephone operator at switchboard by traveling photographer Albert J. Ewing, likely taken in southern Ohio or West Virginia, ca. 1900-1910.

Still, the operator was the heart of the telephone system. She watched over a switchboard containing up to 200 phone lines, listening in with her clunky metal headset. Her main job was to plug callers’ phone lines into the phone lines of the people they wanted to speak to. But she often acted as the town’s information source, too. Operators were also expected to inform customers of election results, streetcar breakdowns, storms, train arrivals, and much more.

In 1900, the life of the rural operator was very different from her peers in the city. The telephone was a big hit with the farm families who could afford one. But there were rarely enough calls to tie a rural operator to her switchboard. To help pass the time, some women attached long cords to their headsets. That way, they could walk around their homes doing chores while they waited for the phone to ring. Rural operators enjoyed a lot of independence.

Sources: pbskids.org/wayback/tech1900/phone.html

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