Ladies in Waiting...
May 14, 2008 5:10 AM   Subscribe

Before the advent of Cellular phones and the internet, cities around the world were entwined with a series of webs hanging precariously overhead. Their function: to relay messages from one part of town to the next. And the pioneers who were put in charge of this arduous task--the Switchboard Operators. The first choice for this new source of employment was a disappointing failure, not surprisingly, but then a new breed of worker emerged on the scene. These hardworking individuals were the epitome of good behaviour and gritty determination. Patient and understanding, they were always expected to fulfill their tasks, no matter what the cost. And, to their credit--they are still remembered today for the unique place they held in some peoples hearts.
posted by hadjiboy (19 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Good post. I categorically deny there being any tears in my eyes from A True Story.

Alsom the good behavior pic raises two questions:

1) Those mounted books are a pretty good idea. I'd like to see some more information on information access from olden times.

2) A transparent blouse is "good behavior" circa 194x? This looks more like a "Hotties on the Horn" expose.
posted by DU at 5:20 AM on May 14, 2008

My mum was a switchboard operator in Liverpool in the sixties. Saturday afternoon was the hardest.
"Hello, operator"
"Ehm, alright queen, what was the score in the Liverpool match?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that caller."
"Aw, come on queen, what was the score?"
"I'm sorry caller but I'm afraid that this isn't what this number is for."
...and so on, for ten minutes or so until, exasperated, she'd say "It was 1-0. OK?"
There would be a moment's silence and then, "Who scored?"
posted by Jofus at 5:22 AM on May 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

Switchboard operators were hot. Detective novels just aren't what they use to be without them. How sexy is a wiretap? Not very.
posted by ewkpates at 5:56 AM on May 14, 2008

Nice post, hadjiboy!

One Ringy Dingy.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:03 AM on May 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

PEnnsylvania 6-5000
posted by caddis at 7:05 AM on May 14, 2008

Operator, can you help me, help me if you please.
Give me the right area code and the number that I need.
My rider left upon the Midnight Flyer,
Singin' like a summer breeze.
I think she's somewhere down South, down about Baton Rouge,
But I just can't remember no number, a number I can use.
Directory don't have it, central done forgot it,
I've gotta find a number to use.
Trying to check out her number, trying to run down her line.
Operator said that's priv'ledged information,
And it ain't no business of mine.
It's floodin' down in Texas, poles are out in Utah,
Gotta find a private line.
She could be hangin' 'round the steel mill,
Working in a house of blue lights.
Riding a getaway bus out of Portland, talking to the night.
I don't know where she's going, I don't care where she's been,
Long as she's doin' it right. Long as she's doin' it right.

--The Grateful Dead, Operator
posted by Afroblanco at 7:20 AM on May 14, 2008

My father grew up in a very small town in Ontario (Grand Valley), in the days of the switchboard operator. His first phone number was "13."
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:35 AM on May 14, 2008

When i moved to rural Suffolk (UK) in 1991 my phone number was 921.
posted by Jofus at 7:57 AM on May 14, 2008

Those were the days my friend. Nice retro post, thanks hadjiboy.
posted by tellurian at 8:36 AM on May 14, 2008

flapjax at midnite - that's a classic!
posted by tellurian at 8:40 AM on May 14, 2008

Jofus - yes, I remember when I was growing up in the UK, once STD (Subscriber Trunk Dialling - direct long distance calling without an operator) had been rolled out, we had variable-length STD codes (area codes) and phone numbers - generally speaking, the smaller the town the longer its area code and so the phone numbers were correspondingly shorter, and vice versa - which was why London used to have the area code 01, and the phone numbers were 7 digits, but a small village could have an area code like 043862 and then a phone number like 921.

Even once STD was in place, you could still often call between small nearby towns with an "abbreviated" area code, which was not only shorter to dial, but which was also charged at a lower rate. Stevenage's area code was 0438 but from nearby Hitchin, you could call a number in Stevenage by prefixing it with 91. In fact I did some "basic" phone hacking and realised you could string together those short prefixes and call over a long distance but only pay the local rate by concatenating the local dialling prefixes to enable your "local" call to hop from local exchange to local exchange. So if Hitchin to Stevenage was 91, and Stevenage to Welwyn was 94, and Welwyn to St Albans was 92, you could call St Albans from Hitchin by dialling 919492 and then the phone number in St Albans and only pay for a local call ...

And you kids? Yes, you can get the hell off my lawn.
posted by kcds at 11:05 AM on May 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

When I was but a toddler in rural Texas, just outside of San Antone, we had crank telephones with an operator who connected calls. This was in the early '50s, so this was sorta late in the game. I still remember the sight of Mom cranking the phone to get a line out.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:14 PM on May 14, 2008

I worked as a relief switchboard operator for a large company in the late 1970s. Twenty-seven incoming lines, 530 telephone extensions, and after about a month I could clear all the incoming calls in about two minutes flat. Even so, when 27 lines are ringing at once, some are going to ring five or six times before I can get to them. Inevitably those folks would immediately gripe "I thought you'd gone home or something!" The best part of the job was that you didn't have to do anything else. If there was a quiet period, you could read the newspaper, do homework, or whatever.
posted by Oriole Adams at 5:49 PM on May 14, 2008

My Mom was a telephone operator in the 1940s. She tried to keep it a secret, but when they learned she got married, she got fired from her job.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:35 AM on June 7, 2008

when they learned she got married, she got fired from her job.
posted by tellurian at 6:11 AM on June 9, 2008

because a married woman was not supposed to work. For Ma Bell there were additional advantages. Young, unmarried women were less likely to seek higher wages, or unionize. In fact, the unions did not even want the telephone operators as members. It wasn't all that long ago that airlines regularly fired stewardesses when they married, or got old, like thirty or so.
posted by caddis at 7:29 AM on June 9, 2008

Good grief! I never knew. A search reveals that they were barred from many professions, including teaching, nursing and working for the government.
posted by tellurian at 4:54 PM on June 9, 2008

caddis has it exactly right - they felt married women would be taken care of by their husbands and single women needed the jobs more; not to mention that married women had a moral imperative to be homemakers.

But that is ancient history. Far more recent: many women who were noticeably pregnant were forced to resign jobs - this was true of many professions, including teachers, I believe right into the 1960s. And one thing I vaguely remember and my older sisters remember quite well: all newspaper job listings were broken down by "male" and "female" jobs. The "female" jobs would be nurse, secretary, grade school teacher, clerk, babysitter. The "male" listings would be everything else, or 75-80% of the listings. That didn't change until 1968 when the EEOC ruled that it violated the Civil Rights Act.

Plus, as recently as the late 1960s, it was illegal for single, adult women to obtain contraceptives! You had to have a spouse's signature.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:34 PM on June 9, 2008

Here in Australia it wasn't until 1966 that married women could work for the Federal Public Service. That illegal contraceptive date seemed so ridiculous I looked it up and it's worse, it was 1972. Hard to believe.
posted by tellurian at 9:48 PM on June 9, 2008

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