Earlier this year I posted this essay about telephone operators; today I happened across this picture which brought back the same kinds of memories.
In an age of smartphones and global cellular service, this is an aspect of life that neither my children nor my grandchildren will never know. I used to think it odd that my own grandparents grew up in an era without airplanes or television, and now I am experiencing what that double-perspective must have been like for them.
A post in Teresa Burritt’s Frog Blog (now sadly defunct) got me thinking about telephone operators.
Before the days of the internet, one of the earliest glurges I encountered – don’t ask me where – was “Information Please,” a heartwarming story of a telephone operator who befriended a young boy. Snopes.com has been unable to confirm or refute this story, so it remains out there as a tale one somehow wishes might be true.
In the days when Ma Bell had a virtual monopoly on the world of telecommunications, I am certain that this is just the image that AT&T would have liked to sear into the consciousness of every one of us. As it turns out, they tried.
The sentiment of the ad is so close to that of the story that I wonder if “Information Please” wasn’t going the rounds of the cork-board and water cooler network long before it showed up in the fax and internet world. What makes the ad of particular interest to me is the fact that the model is my mother, Margaret Draper.
Before anyone gets the idea that life at home was like being raised by the Sally of the story, remember that the theatre is all about illusion. For most of my young life, Mom was single and trying to run a career as an actress, which meant that a lot of times I came home to a nanny or an empty house. There was, however, a telephone there – and in New York City, something called Artist’s Service. If Mom was away and I needed to contact her, I could dial SChuyler 4-5700 and be greeted by a pleasant voice who would get a message to her, or give me one that she had left. I only remember one individual’s name – Bill Butler – but I do remember that the folks there were invariably kind to a lonely young child, and it was nice to have a human on the other end of the line who cared. (Parenthetically, when I was really bored I could dial “MERMAID” – otherwise known as MElrose 2-6243 – and listen to “At the tone, the time will be… nine… forty-three… and ten seconds. *beep*” And yes, I did it more than once, for long spells of time.)
The Telephony Museum reports that “the first operators were boys, who turned out to be impatient and rude when dealing with phone customers. Their rudeness made them extinct within only a few years, replaced by females who were, ‘calm and gracious.'” In a nice summary of the history of telephone operators, the IEEE Global History Network reports that “the first female telephone operator was Emma McNutt, who was hired in New York City by a manager who happened to be a neighbor and who thought Emma was a “nice girl.” Little is known about Emma’s career, although she was in the vanguard of women who established telephone operator work as an almost exclusively female job.” Correspondingly, with the exception of Bill, every operator I ever dealt with in the 50’s and 60’s was female. However, that changed once again in the early 70’s, when AT&T responded to certain class-action lawsuits brought by both women and men, and in 1972 Rick Wehmhoefer became the first male operator in the Bell System.
Most of my contact with operators in the 1960’s took place when making collect calls home from the Cheshire Spa, a local greasy spoon in Cheshire, Connecticut just across from the Academy campus on Main Street.
The Spa was in the far-right space, currently occupied by Grand A Pizza.
It was run by Pete Karavites, had pinball machines and a couple of dark phone booths in the back, and a persistent schoolboy rumor that all sorts of unsavory business went on in the back rooms.
I can still remember the “ding” sounds as I dropped coins into the old rotary-dial phones, or asking the operator to place a station-to-station collect call for me. When my mom picked up, the operator would say, “I have a collect call to anyone from so-and-so, will you accept the charges?”
Which reminds me of an amusing and true anecdote from my family’s history: At one point, my mother’s youngest brother was in the navy, and apparently he found himself for some reason in Tonopah, Nevada. Needing to call home, he placed a collect call in the above manner to his mother in Salt Lake. The operator announced, “I have a collect call from your son in Tonopah, Nevada, will you accept the charges?” Grandmother promptly replied, “I have no son in Tonopah, Nevada,” and hung up. My uncle Delbert was not deterred, and tried again, instructing the operator to make it a person-to-person call, more expensive but more explicit. This time, it was “I have a collect call for Frances Draper from Delbert Draper in Tonopah, Nevada, will you accept the charges?” Grandmother, exasperated, is said to have responded, “I know no Delbert Draper in Tonopah, Nevada,” and hung up again. How the story ended was never told me, but I chuckle at Granny’s inability to put two and two together.
In the 1980’s and later, before the wide advent of cell phones, the pressures of competition resulted in operators who seemed largely concerned with getting their average response time down to 5 seconds or less. Dealing with them was about as pleasant as going in for a colonoscopy. But clearly, it was not always that way – once again, from the IEEE site, “In the 1880s and 1890s women telephone operators often served the same small group of customers every day. This created an intimacy between client and customer as customers grew to recognize operators’ voices and know them as people. In many areas, operators could be counted on to have all sorts of information at hand, such as the names and addresses of local customers, the latest news, weather, and sports results, the correct time of day, and even gossip.” It seems that given the long history of telephony an the size of our country, a situation like one reported in “Information Please” is more likely than not, particularly in a smaller rural area.
Sadly, those days are gone forever. With most people abandoning land lines for cellular networks where operators are virtually unknown, finding a friendly voice to talk to for no good reason would be about as likely as finding an attorney with a conscience.  As a result, while I never met a “Sally,” I’m grateful to have experienced a time when you could dial “O” for operator, and find a human being on the other end of the line.
1 As an added bit of interest, Bill Gold of the Washington Post wrote the following article about this advertisement:
The District Line
by Bill Gold (The Washington Post – January 11, 1964)
Phone Company Adds Some New Lines
THE FIRST advertisement that hits your eye as you open the new issue of Life centers your attention on the face of a woman who is wearing a telephone headset. The woman has an appealing face. It’s not the Hollywood painted doll type of appeal, and you can see character in that face. Intelligence and understanding, too. There are a few lines in the brow, and just a hint of advancing years around the eyes and mouth. But it’s a good face, and the reader learns from the text that this is the face of a Bell System telephone operator who is always “close by if you need her, no matter what the hour.” It’s very comforting, very effective. But it’s disturbing, too. There’s something different here. This isn’t the bright-eyed girl of 19 we’re used to seeing in telephone ads. This isn’t the peaches-and-cream wholesome beauty to whom we’re accustomed; it’s a mature woman. And in the few seconds during which the reader studies her, he comes to the realization that one of the world’s largest corporations has made a deliberate change in its advertising policy. I was intrigued by my discovery, and immediately put in a phone call to a company spokesman. My questions were bucked along to headquarters in New York, and the answers came back promptly and frankly: the Bell System has indeed made a basic change in its advertising policy. Instead of the idealized beauties of the past, we’re now going to see more believable models. They’ll be “more realistic,” closer to the average, more readily identifiable with living, breathing human beings. Attractive young people are fun to have around, and they’re often useful, too. But any large company must also have its dedicated old-timers – the folks who know the importance of dependable service and who can give training and guidance to the youngsters who are just coming into the employe pipeline. So the Bell System has concluded that a more mature face in its ads will more truly depict the “average” employe. And because the emphasis in its ads will now shift from idealization to realism, the company hopes that the ads will be more believable, and therefore more effective. This promises to be a fascinating experiment, and it may have far-reaching consequences. Imagine the impact among professional models and advertising agencies. Think of the changes that may take place in TV commercials, in advertising generally, and in salesmanship itself, for that matter. Will the public be as mature as this new breed of model? Will people respond to this kind of soft-keyed approach? We’ll have to wait and see.