The world’s first female telephone operator, Emma Nutt, was hired in 1878 by Alexander Graham Bell who had invented the telephone two years earlier which was also the year of the nation’s centennial and of Custer’s Last Stand
Bell had tried using teenage boys as operators, but their attitude and behavior proved unacceptable. The Boston Telephone Dispatch Company’s customers appreciated Emma’s cultured voice and her patient, courteous manner, whereas the boys had too often been impatient, wisecracking and even profane. According to one source dignified Emma married one of those hopefully reformed boys years later.
Emma was 18 years old and in compliance with the company’s hiring requirements for operators by being between 17 and 26 years of age, unmarried, of a prim and proper appearance and with arms long enough to reach all points of their huge switchboard. Her starting salary was $10 a month. She soon memorized every phone number in the company’s directory and stayed at her post for about 35 years.
The prim and proper appearance requirement seems a bit odd for operators who would be unseen by the callers. However, around 1978, a century after Emma began to work, a Bell supervisor told me the company had once relaxed its strict dress code for operators but the resulting decline in attitude was disappointing and the code was reinstated. Are we dealing with the same decline in attitude during the current widespread dress down work days? Haven’t you noticed that even the lady robots seem a little testy on Fridays?
Live telephone operators were part of my life for many decades beginning in 1936 when my family got our first phone. Bobby, my best pal in the second grade, had been bragging about his family’s phone so I decided on that first day to call him to do some counter bragging. I lifted the receiver for the first time in my life and I heard, “Number please” by some lady with a pleasant, cultured voice and probably prim and proper with long arms. . She sounded like Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife.
“I don’t know his number, ” I said, “but I want to talk to Bobby. He lives across the street in the white house with the blue shutters.” For a moment there was silence on the other end and then i received a prim and proper instruction: “Please get your mother, Sonny.”