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At a recent reunion in Maine, former operators recall the pre-smartphone era working telephone switchboards04:33
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Operators have always been a fashionable lot. Note the bobby sox and saddle shoes. c. 1951. (Courtesy The Telecommunications History Group, Inc.
via Maine Public)
Operators have always been a fashionable lot. Note the bobby sox and saddle shoes. c. 1951. (Courtesy The Telecommunications History Group, Inc. via Maine Public)

Before smartphones, most people kept in touch using landline telephones.

And before direct dialing was common, some calls were handled by switchboard operators.

During the 1950s, more than 220,000 operators were employed by the Bell System alone. Most were women who were expected to be courteous, quick-thinking and patient under pressure.

And at a recent reunion in Maine, some former operators shared a few highlights about what they say was a challenging but rewarding job in a simpler time.

Until the 1970s, a switchboard operators' assistance was often needed for person-to-person, collect calls or to report a crime.

“Operator, yes operator, I'd like to make a long-distance call to area code 314-822-7024.”

“Operator, I'm calling from a phone booth and I'm trying to reach 326-3055.”

“Operator, can you get me the police, this is an emergency."

via Maine Public)
via Maine Public)

Operators were based at local switching stations called telephone exchanges where they watched for calls that appeared as lights on a cord board.

"Which was a board with little holes for different towns and when the light came on that's what we answered,” says Shireen Desmond, a former operator.

Desmond says she would then offer her standard greeting: " 'Shireen, how may I help you?’ We had to tell our name."

The caller would then provide a phone number. The operator would plug the caller into the corresponding circuit. And voila! What could possibly go wrong?

"Well, one time I plugged into Dixfield. And there was a young boy and he said the house was on fire,” says Lorraine Luce, who had just started as a switchboard operator. She says she got so flustered she forgot her training for dealing with an emergency. Fortunately, she says a supervisor was quick to intervene.

"There's a certain procedure you have to follow which completely escaped me and I hollered, "Fire!" And it wasn't long after that that I went into retraining,” Luce says.

Desmond and Luce were among a group of 30 former operators recently swapping stories over lunch at a restaurant in Auburn, Maine. Most of the women are in their 70s and 80s. Some started for the phone company known as Ma Bell right after high school in the 1960s. Back then, there was a strict dress code: No pants and no miniskirts. And everyone was expected to mind their Ps and Qs, even when customers did not, like this man whose call is preserved in the AT&T archives.

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Man: "That ain't the number."

Operator: "Well, sir, that's definitely the number."

Man: "What?"

Operator: "That is definitely the number."

Man: "That ain't the number that I asked you for."

Operator: “One moment, I'll give you my service assistant."

Man: “What the hell is the matter with you?!

Operator: "I'll give you my service assistant, one moment, please."

via Maine Public)
via Maine Public)

Most customers, the women say, were generally not that rude. They seemed to appreciate having a friendly, helpful voice on the line.

Women didn't start out in the role of operators. AT&T corporate historian Sheldon Hochheiser says when the first telephones came online in the 1870s, teenage boys were the ones answering calls for help. There was just one problem…

"They acted like teenage boys,” Hochheiser says. “Wise-cracking, not polite, not necessarily reliable."

Hochheiser says it didn't take long for the Boston Dispatch Telephone Company to realize it might be better to hire adult women as operators instead. The first was Emma Nutt in 1878. Nutt did the job so well it was rumored she could remember every number in the local telephone directory.

Operators were never supposed to eavesdrop on private calls, but Gail Simpson says, occasionally, when things were unusually quiet, they might listen in. She recalls a story that became legendary among her peers. It involved a man using a pay phone to call a woman. The operator was supposed to alert him when his first three minutes were up.

"He had called her and they were having a heated conversation,” Simpson says. “She was telling him that she was three months pregnant. But the operator who initiated their call heard her say that she was three months pregnant, and when she went to notify, instead of saying, 'Your three minutes are up,' she said, 'Your three months are now up,’ and realized what she had done."

Though they were traditionally underpaid compared to men, Simpson says being a telephone operator was a good option if you didn't have a college degree.

"I had five children and my insurances covered 99% of their births and medical care. Life insurance, retirement, pensions. Not many companies offer that these days,” Simpson says.

Simpson worked for the phone company for 32 years. And while the lights have gone dark on her old cord board, she and others say they have fond memories of the pre-smartphone era when calling someone was more complicated but operators were always standing by to offer their personal touch.

This story is a production of New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Maine Public on Dec. 6, 2021.

This segment aired on December 8, 2021.

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