There is an object in the History Center’s permanent exhibits that you probably don’t associate with women’s history. It sits alone, with holes cut out so you can admire and wonder at its tangle of wires. Of course, I am talking about the telephone switchboard on display on the second floor. The switchboard represents not just a bygone era, but also what once served as a community hub and a gateway into new employment for women.
Switchboards were a part of the telephone industry from its earliest days through the 1960s and beyond (and don’t forget the private exchanges used by businesses and other institutions). Without the technology for automatic connections, calls had to be manually connected. If you were on a party line, then you could call directly to other numbers on that line, but calls to a number on a separate line, or to an out-of-town number, required a person to physically make the connection via the switchboard.
The original switchboard operators of the late 19th century were teenage boys, which sort of makes sense, as this would have been the group that carried messages, on foot or on bikes, across towns and cities. Losing their jobs to this new industry, they were the logical choice to become switchboard operators. Alas, being teenage boys, so the story goes, they played pranks on each other and on customers and were reputed to be quite rude. Therefore, the telephone companies fired the boys and got women – polite, compliant, gracious, well-spoken women – to fill these positions instead. And while this was probably true, the underlying reason for switching to women had to be an economic one: women could be paid one-fourth to one-half of what men would have been paid. If you needed cheap, polite labor, then of course, you’d hire women, and really not think twice about it.
Enter the world’s first female telephone operator: Emma Nutt. Beginning September 1, 1878, she worked for the Boston Telephone Dispatch Company. With that job, she ushered in a new field for women. As the telephone system grew and spread throughout the country, so too did the presence of the switchboard operator. The female operator quickly became the face of the telephone companies, becoming a cultural fixture of movies and later television shows, and certainly in many cases, a social and community anchor as well.
Switchboard operators worked long hours (often 10 hour days or longer), had to meet certain physical and age criteria, were subject to strict codes of conduct and dress, and could end up handling hundreds of calls in a day. Operators also had to wear uncomfortable head and neck gear and worked in very close quarters, which is part of why specific physical requirements had to be met (arm length mattered!). The operator was also required to be of good character, undergo voice training, and accept that the customer could say anything and all she could say back was “thank you.” And that’s not even considering the demands of concentration, dexterity, and accuracy.
Why put up with the long hours, restrictions, and constraints? Well, there were not that many jobs open to women, outside of domestic service, waitressing, retail, clerical, or teaching. This was a new and exciting job, and the only position open to women in the telephone industry. Women would not be hired as engineers or linemen, or even allowed to apply for technical positions outside of operator or typing pool positions, for quite some time.
Zooming back in to take a look at the local scene, I was delighted to find articles in the Daily Herald-Telephone about two of the switchboard operators for the Smithville Telephone Exchange. Thanks to a regular feature of newspaper, “Women of the Bloomington Area,” we have a little insight into what it was like to live in Ellettsville and work at the Smithville Telephone Exchange in the 1950s and 1960s.
At this time, these women were an integral part of their community, serving not just as (literal) connectors, but even at times, life-savers, playing a key role in communication for the community. They would be who you would call when you had an emergency, were in a panic, wanted to know why someone hadn’t answered their phone or where the fire was last night or who had died. Or, perhaps you’d call to ask “if roads were passable” or “how swollen the streams had gotten due to recent heavy rains.” Or, maybe you’d forgotten when a meeting had been scheduled. In other words, the switchboard operator was the “pleasant voiced woman with ‘her finger on the pulse of her community.'” (See Cornman interview from Daily Herald-Telephone).
At the time of the interview, with Mrs. Thelma Cornman of Ellettsville for the “Women of the Bloomington Area,” the Smithville Telephone Exchange had 10 switchboard operators, including two “extras.” Mrs. Cornman, along with her husband and youngest daughter, lived in an apartment in the building where the switchboard was located. These live-in operators would work through the night, either supervising other operators or answering calls themselves. In a time without the 911 system, the community relied heavily on the telephone operator as a key part – maybe really the most important and only part – of the rapid response to any emergency. For example, she had “to sound the fire alarm from her station and make six to eight calls to volunteer fire fighters.”
Another switchboard operator, Mrs. Violet Brown, was also interviewed by the Women’s Editor for the “Women of Bloomington Area.” Mrs. Brown was in the last group of operators, along with eight others whose positions were terminated when an automatic dialing system was finally installed. She also lived in the building where the switchboard was located, serving as the supervisor at night. Both she and Mrs. Cornman were seen as having the right temperament and skills for this demanding work. Mrs Cornman is described as “pleasant-voiced” and patient with all callers, while Mrs. Brown had a “gentle” voice. Mrs. Brown knew people in her community by their voices, and she remarked, “Sometimes I meet people to whom I have talked for years, and it is interesting to compare my mental image of them with the persons themselves.” I suspect that this little detail is just the tip of the iceberg, and that Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Cornman knew their communities inside and out, kept many a confidence, and displayed infinite patience and kindness to their neighbors, all the while holding a position with much responsibility and being of real service to their corner of the world.
The switchboard in our Museum is much more than a quaint, “old-timey” object. It represents the advancement of women in the workforce, their continued struggle for equality in that workforce, and their vital roles as links, connectors, and life-savers for their communities. Our hats off to all the switchboard operators, the Thelma Cornmans and the Violet Browns. Happy Women’s History Month – you deserve our recognition!
Featured Photo: From Monroe County History Center Collections, 2004.051.0003
Lola Graham, “Women of the Bloomington Area: Mrs. Thelma Cornman,” Daily Herald-Telephone. Date Unknown. MCHC Research Library Vertical Files.
Lola Graham, “Women of the Bloomington Area: Mrs. Violet Brown,” Daily Herald-Telephone.
Date Unknown. MCHC Research Library Vertical Files.
Jennifer Latson, “The Woman Who Made History By Answering the Phone,” Time September 1, 2015 (accessed at: http://time.com/4011936/emma-nutt/)
“Use of Women as Telephone Operators: Early History” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njW70pofZsg
“Training for Service, 1926” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQbwRYCYJzI
“1919 Telephone Operators Strike Successfully Over Low Pay and Oppressive Conditions” http://www.massaflcio.org/1919-telephone-workers-strike-successfully-over-low-pay-and-oppressive-conditions
Film, “Telephone Operator”, can be viewed several places on You Tube. I accessed it at https://youtu.be/l3RwwdF8j2o
Article by: Georg’ann Cattelona (library volunteer)
 For one iconic depiction, check out the 1937 film, “Telephone Operator,” starring Judith Allen as the switchboard operator who valiantly works through rising flood waters (literally!) to try and save a town, surviving and winning her man in the end. The film can be viewed several places on YouTube. I accessed it at https://youtu.be/l3RwwdF8j2o
 AT&T was charged with employment discrimination by the EEOC in the 1970s. See Lois Kathryn Herr, Women, Power, and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003.