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Telephone operators of another era gather to reconnect

Operators have always been a fashionable lot. Note the bobby sox and saddle shoes. c. 1951
he Telecommunications History Group, Inc.
Operators have always been a fashionable lot. Note the bobby sox and saddle shoes. c. 1951

Before smartphones, landline telephones were the way most people kept in touch. And until direct dialing became common, a switchboard operator's assistance was often needed to help with long-distance calls, collect calls, or to reach the police or the fire department in an emergency.

Most switchboard operators were women who were expected to be courteous, quick-thinking and patient under pressure. They handled all kinds of requests, from providing the time of day to more delicate matters. Examples like this one can be found in the AT&T archives, when an operator takes a call from a frightened-sounding woman:

"There's somebody outside ringing my doorbell and it scares me to death."

The operator replies: "Well, ma'am, the only thing I can suggest that you do is call the police. I'll connect you."

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 of Waterville, Maine.

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

"Well, one time there was a young boy, and he said the house was on fire," recalls Lorraine Luce of Poland, Maine. Luce had just started as a switchboard operator. She says she got so flustered she forgot her training for dealing with an emergency.

"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!"

Desmond and Luce were part of 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 working 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. Everyone was expected to mind their p's and q's even when customers did not, like this man whose call is among those preserved in the AT&T archives:

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

Long Distance operators in Omaha, Neb. c. 1959
/ The Telecommunications History Group Inc.
The Telecommunications History Group, Inc.
Long distance operators in Omaha, Neb. c. 1959

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

Man: "What the hell is the matter with you?"

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

Most callers, the women say, were generally not that rude. There was a concern that operators might eavesdrop on personal conversations. And occasionally that did happen, Gail Simpson says, although it was against the rules. She recalls a story involving a heated conversation between a man and a woman on a payphone. The operator was supposed to alert him when his first three minutes were up.

"The operator who initiated their call heard her say that she was three months pregnant," Simpson says. "And when she went to notify, instead of saying, 'Your three minutes are up,' she said, 'Your three months are now up!' "

Simpson says being a telephone operator was a good option if you didn't have a college degree. She worked for the phone company for 32 years. And while the lights have gone dark on her old cord board, she and others have fond memories of an era when calling someone was a bit more complicated, but operators were standing by to help with any situation.

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.
/ The Telecommunications History Group Inc.
he Telecommunications History Group, Inc.
In response to equal rights legislation, telephone companies began hiring for "nontraditional" jobs. This meant that women could become installers and repair technicians, while "boys" could once again be operators. c. 1970

Copyright 2021 Maine Public

Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.

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