Hello! The Telephone Girl, an article on early telephone operators, from the June 11, 1899 New York Times


The New York Times,
    June 11, 1899, p.IMS10:



    The average man might do much worse than court a telephone girl of New York. This is an opinion carefully formed after a study of the various exchanges, after several sessions of listening in by the side of on and another in active service, after chats here and there with chief operators.

    For the Miss behind the telephone, whose voice is most frequently heard in the query, "What number, please?"--she is, as a rule, a slip of a girl, barely twenty oftentimes--is a very capable young person, indeed. The writer feels inclined to put her at the head of New York's army of working girls, for her brisk intelligence, her gentle ways, and the deft way she uses her small hands.
  1920 NY Telephone ad
Ad from the Jan 15, 1920 NY Times

    Of course the general public cannot bear testimony as to the accuracy of the latter. All he really knows of the telephone girl of New York is her voice. He may conjure up--he probably does--some radiant, frivolous being who has two amusements in her life--to flirt over the wire and to "talk back." He--the general public--has never seen the telephone girl at work, and hence he is excuseable.

    Actually, the telephone girls of New York are attractive, but not markedly so when taken as a lump. They do not lend themselves particularly to romance. They are skillful, however, which is much more to the point when a telephone switchboard comes to be taken into account. For of all inventions of man there is nothing that has more of the unexpected, the sudden, the immediate rush about it than the bunch of wires that land in front of each telephone girl and keep her busy interminably.

    The woman in front of the wire is like the man behind the gun--she has to be alert. There are no hostages given to friolousness in a telephone exchange--the strictest attention is needed. A dozen calls may come upon her in half as many moments, and her brain, eye, and hand are taxed to supply the combinations asked for.
    Behind each ten girls or so goes Argus in the person of a supervisor, a being promoted from the ranks of every day telephone girls, who can both see and hear whatever her charges may be doing. This supervisor has a record of her own to make. She is hoping for further promotion, a jump to the post of monitor. The monitors--the largest exchange in the city has four of them--sit at desk switchboards and have inquiries referred to them, and connections to make that the regular operators have not been able, for one of a dozen different reasons, to accomplish. Besides this, they listen in secretly upon the various girls in the room, a girl never knowing when the thin little wire is spying upon her.

    Altogether, the Miss at the exchange end of the telephone is a healthy, hearty, happy young woman, whose privileges are many, and whose labors are not so severe, though incessant and taxing. She can get a relief whenever she asks for it, always provided she is not trying to soldier, to get out of working, and she has as her daily right twenty minutes of rest during each morning and twenty during each afternoon. During these rests she may go in the parlor of her exchange and gossip with such other girls as happen to be off duty, or she may curl up in a big wicker rocking chair and read the illustrated papers provided for her, these being kept fully up to date. In comparison with the other working girls of the city the lot is not a hard one.

    It is not with the complex wires and their system, the electrical adjustments by virtue of which you, A, get B half a dozen miles away, but with the human force that deftly binds for her seat the scattered, innumerable wires, this telephone girl, that the present writer is concerned.
    There are some 1,200 telephone girls in New York--between 1,100 and 1,200 at the lowest estimate. Exact figures are impossible fro the reason that the number climbs upward each week. Students are continually being taken on, and so expertly is the wheat winnowed from the chaff when applicants are examined that few turn out anything but very good operators, and are retained.

    Mere man cuts a small figure in telephoning to-day, in the exchanges at all events the clicks of the cams at each long switchboard echo to the rustle of skirts. The coat masculine is hardly to be noticed. Such of these coats as are to be seen are worn by the manager and his assistants, the only men besides the artisans that at intervals, tool laden, appear from behind the switchboard.
    At night in two or three of the exchanges men are the working force. But the masculine proportion grows smaller as the years go on. There are hardly fifty men in the entire exchange service to-day, the most of these night workers only. Here is the one industry outside the much-heralded "home sphere" in which femininity is supreme.

    An exchange presents an interesting sight. About three sides of the great room, reaching very nearly to the ceiling, set in a structure that reminds one of an inner shell or wall, is a switchboard, with its projecting ledge. Along it, as closely as comfort will allow, are girls, and yet more girls. In a never-broken line they stretch on, over a hundred at a time, in an exchange like Cortlandt, girls tall and short, full-fledged women and round-faced lassies just out of the schoolroom, girls of dainty face and contour, and girls whom fate has dealt less kindly with, girls half-shabby and girls of pretty costume with wonderful little aprons about their waists. Nothing more or less than a concourse of youthful femininity that interests because of the marked diversity of the types shown.

    They are not the girls of the factory, nor yet of the shops. That a better class than this can claim them, certainly a good proportion, is evident. There is more intelligence about their movements, a better eye and a better ear, hands that move with more deftness. The own sisters of half of them may, it is true, be the salesladies encountered in any of the department stores, but these are picked young women, and their order, just as their skill, is higher.

    One thing the visitor to an exchange notes before all. Half a hundred, a hundred, girls sit so close together that their frocks touch, and yet not a word of gossip is heard. The room is almost a silent one. A step close to the switchboard makes you conscious of click after click, and the low-spoken words of the operators in answer to each call. That is absolutely all.

    If it were permitted to chat with subscribers, to gossip with each other, the telephone girls would have no time. It is nothing unusual for an expert operator to answer 125 calls an hour. She may even answer 150, or two and a half a minute. On the trunk lines, where the process is simpler and where exchanges are joined (a man on Broad wanting to speak to a man on Thirty-eighth Street, for example,) as many as 600 connections are often made in an hour.

    Sometimes for five full minutes it is a mad race with the girl at the case to attend to all the demands made upon her. Perhaps, at certain hours of the day, things may calm down, and her hands, for a moment or two, lie idly in her lap. But even then she must be on the que vive for new calls, her eyes on the lookout.

    Contrary to the belief of the public, a bell does not warn the telephone girl when the customer rings up "central." A little metal disk falls, displaying the subscriber's number, and that only, with no sound, with hardly a stir.

    To see the girl at her work, to observe her quick, delicate, never-hesitating movements, is a pastime fascinating to the extreme. Fastened to her ear by a flexible metal band that slips over her hair and is so light that it is hardly to be noticed is her head receiver. When before the case she never takes this off. A cord runs from it, the other end being a plug which is slipped into a jack, or hole in the switchboard's ledge. In front of her hangs a mouthpiece suspended on cords. Thus the girl's hands are free and she can move with great ease.

    Before her are two panels of the long switchboard, these a mass of metal holes, the jacks. There are hundreds of these holes in all, and each signifies one particular telephone. Below is a row of disks, one of which will drop when a subscriber rings off. On the ledge are the plugs, each on the end of a long flexible wire, the connecting cord. Then come rows of calling circuit buttons, annunciator drops, cams, and ringing buttons, the cams being little levers that the girl must raise to hear.

    For convenience, that the telephone girls may be able to handle the hundreds of combinations better, three girls work together in a section, being known as A, B, and C.
    This is to save a girl from having to jump up from her seat to reach a far distant hole, or jack. At the mere mentioning of a number one or the other of her partners will insert the plug she pushes over.

    Simple enough in theory, the work gets complicated when call follows call in rapid succession. Yet the telephone girl keeps her head. One of the disks of a drop falls, and the number is displayed. Quick as thought the girl takes up a plug (which itself fits in a hole, its long cord falling even below the floor,) and sticks it sharply in the hole whose number corresponds with the number on the disk. At the same instant she has thrown the little lever on a line with the plug's hole, and is already asking "What number, please?"
    If the number that comes to her ears is of the same exchange what remains to be done is simple. The plugs spoken of go in pairs. She has only to pull out its mate, and push it in the proper hole. Then throwing another cam she presses the corresponding ringing button. That rings the bell for the party called. She listens sharply for an instant, then announcing "All right. Go ahead."

    Her swiftly flying fingers are already busy with another call. One of her subscribers has called for a number on another exchange. She has the plug for his wire already in place, of course, but a more complicated connection is now to be made.
    She presses a calling circuit button on the ledge. This brings to her aid another operator, a girl at the Trunk Line switchboard, of the distant exchange. "1029 Broad," she remarks quietly through her transmitter. More quickly than the word can be written a number comes back, 10. This is the number of the hole in her switchboard in to which her second plug must go to get the Broad Street connection. The plug is slipped in, the cam thrown, the ringing button pressed. Two more people have bridged space, two more lines of cord stretch over the switchboard, and several more calls are under way.

    That is telephoning, from the telephone girl's point of view. The great world without is little but a mass of numbers, to the tune of many thousands, any two of which may have to be brought together, and not a second's warning...
    The plugs and their connecting cords have not only to be put up, they must be taken down as well. The telephone girl has to keep track of the conversations and learn when the talkers are through. If they ring off as they should, a drop falls, a sign that the plugs may be pulled out. The cords, weighted at the bottom, return automatically into their holes. Every one does not ring off, however. The girl must keep track of the wires she has put up, and inquire; if it is a message rate subscriber, as is generally the case, she must make a record of each call on a ticket.

    Some switchboards vary in details of arrangement from others, the girls on the trunk lines operate somewhat differently, but the above, in the main, estimating the number of calls each girl will get a day at from 500 to 600, gives an idea of the telephone girl's round.

    Up in the new Riverside Exchange, in West Eighty-ninth Street, a new system has been installed. When a subscriber calls (he does not need to ring, the telephone girl is notified by the mere act of his taking the receiver off the hook) a tiny electric lamp under his jack in the switchboard is at once lighted. All the telephone girl has to do is to stick the plug in and ask for the number wanted. Another light shows that the man called for has responded. No lights at all show after the connection is made, but when the talk is over and the receivers are hung up, yet another lamp glows.

    As one stands in the Riverside Exchange and watches the ledge down its length, these lights twinkle, rise and fade in a rapid succession of changing dots. It seems a keyboard played upon by the white fingers of the the telephone girls, where, instead of music, colors--red and yellow--in brilliant effects and combinations hurry forth and die out like vanishing fireflies...

    It is in the early morning, when it is the duty of each girl to ring up all of her subscribers and find if the wires are in good working order for the business of the day...
    In the down-town exchanges, where clerks respond to the call most frequently, and where all is brisk commerce, the telephone girl briefly asks: "Telephone all right?" The answer is oftener than otherwise simply "Yep!"
    But in the residence districts, where the house telephones abound, such a short query would never do. The girls have learned this of their own accord. In their sweetest, most "society like" tones, they ask: "Good morning, Mrs. Robinson. Excuse me for troubling you, but I just wanted to know if your telephone was working nicely this morning.
    The question is met in the same polite spirit in which it is asked, and frequently Mrs. Robinson will reply at some length. She comes to know and really feel a definite interest in her telephone girl, and the interest is reciprocated...

    The girls at the Thirty-eighth Street Exchange enjoy another sort of experience--a multitude of the pay station people, some of whom, even in this late day and generation, have quite evidently never used a telephone before.
    It is wonderful, these girls say, how many of these people there still are. Men and women alike ring up, and there they stop, so far as the proper using of a telephone goes. They give a name and address instead of a number, and Miss Telephone has to patiently instruct them...
    Thirty-eighth Street is, besides, the great exchange for evening calls, a "rush hour" there being from 6 to 8, during the time of New York's dining and just before the theatres "go in..."

    The word busy opens up an interesting question. How does a girl know? So far as her own switchboard is concerned, she can tell easily, of course, but a subscribers wire actually terminates in a score and more different switchboards, in every section of three switchboards in fact.
    An ingenious bit of mechanism tells the girl whether any other girl is using that number. As she touches the outer edge of the hole or jack with the plug a slight rumbling sound comes to her ears. This means engaged, occupied. She must keep the call in her head, and try for the number again. No girl would ever think of reporting "busy" if she could possible make the connection. It would simply waste her time.

    There are, besides the girls at the cases, several especially detailed in each exchange to count up the checks for calls. At the toll-check table at Thirty-eighth Street, eight girl clerks count 24,000 checks a day. These girls receive the same rates of pay as the girls actually operating.

    A telephone girl starts in as a student at $3 a week, listening in at first, and finally taking the case in slack hours. She is raised gradually according to her capacity until in two or three years, if she is bright and quick, she reaches the top of operatorhood, $9 a week.
    The Supervisors get about a dollar a week more, the pay of monitors is $12. An expert chief operator can rise to about $18. No girl has yet risen from student to the heights of ordinary operatorhood in less than a year and a half.
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