It’s an all too believable story. In the latter part of the 19th century, the first telephone operators were boys and young men. Such lads were doing their duty as telegraph operators all over the country, and it was a natural move to hire them for the earliest versions of a telephone exchange.
The first permanent telephone exchange center went live on January 28, 1878, in New Haven, Connecticut, with 21 charter customers. The Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company (soon to be the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company) also opened its exchange in early 1878, putting on a crew of male operators.
Boys will be boys. The telephone companies soon discovered that their impatient and annoying behavior, including pranks and (gasp!) swearing—usually undetectable in the telegraph world—made the lads ill-suited to the live voice telephone world.
Enter Emma Mills Nutt. She became the world’s first female telephone operator at the Boston company on September 1, 1878. Her sister, Stella, started working alongside her a couple hours later. Emma (1860-1915) and Stella paved the way for legions of mostly sweet-voiced ladies handling the calls for several generations of callers who were happy to have a party line and didn’t mind ringing for the operator to get “long distance.” (Direct dialing and unique telephone numbers weren’t common before the 1920s).
In her first assignment Emma was paid $10 a month for working 54 hours a week. It’s said that she memorized the phone directory of the New England Telephone Company.
|Emma Nutt, her sister Stella and a couple lads working the phones in 1878|
The earliest job description for “telephone operator” required that a female applicant be unmarried, between the ages of 17 and 26, with a “prim and proper look” and arms long enough to reach to the top of the telephone switchboard. Sadly, in the 1880s, companies casually got away with refusing to hire Jewish women and ladies of color.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.