Long, Long Ago…

In the infant stages of the telephone industry, it was nuts. Customer calls were handled by teenage boys who were hired to run across a room to plug in circuits. When boys are running in the house, it’s not much of a surprise when horseplay follows.

Young males aren’t always the most patient or understanding individuals on the planet. (I can hear my son saying, “It’s not Too-Duh-Lee-Doo you nit-wit [hopefully mumbled under his breath], “You want Tah-LEE-Doe.”) The boys’ penchant for playing craps turned reaching a responsible, working switchboard operator into…yes…a craps-shoot.

With exchanges ranging from curt to vulgar, these young male operators were giving a bad name to Telephone Dispatch Company exchange in Boston, Massachusetts. It was time to present a better image to customers.

So the company tried an experiment. On September 1, 1878 the Telephone Dispatch Company hired Emma Nutt, who proved her worth convincingly enough that her sister Stella was hired later the same day. The Nutts became the first female telephone operators and gradually things at the switchboard became a little less—well—nuts. Emma continued working as an operator for 33 years.

To convince families to allow their daughters to go to work, telephone companies took on a parent-like roll – hence the nickname “Ma Bell.” Because it was one of the few respectable jobs for women at the time, women quickly took over the switchboards, as well as office positions such as typists and secretaries. They also became telegraph operators.

Fast forwarding to the future, the July 21, 1935 issue of The San Antonio Express reported:

“New inventions are threatening to send the telephone operators home, even to substitute mechanical stenographers for human ones. But also new inventions are developing new opportunities. New social crises are developing new challenges. New chances may come to women if they are not too blind to see them, too mousey to [essay] them. After all, Emma Nut when she walked into a profane, smoke-laden telephone office, was not only a pleasant, well-mannered young woman, but also a daring one. “

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that women began to clamor for an opportunity to do other things for the telephone company, like becoming installers and repair technicians. In 1973 Time magazine reported that feminists had complained about this to the government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and American Telegraph & Telephone was forced to open every job in their system to both sexes. Nine months later, the report was that the decree was producing many more male operators than female linemen or installers.

Of course in our day and age, the operator has been all but eliminated, or replaced by a computerized automated push-buttons-till-you-scream system that does absolutely nothing for a company’s image. Things have come full circle, with a twist.

I wonder what Emma would think?

P.S. Emma once commented that she was grateful she wasn’t named “Imma.” I believe their parents had a sense of humor because if you change the “e” in Stella to an “I”, you find Stella had something to be grateful for, too.

More info:  The Telecommunications History Group

Copyright 2007 Carolyn Dekat, first appearing on Small Addictions The Skateboard


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