Wednesday, March 5, 2014

At the switchboard circa 1900

Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Loretta reports:
After the recent video teaching us how to use a dial telephone, I couldn’t resist this early 20th century switchboard.  Well, it might have something to do with my experience in a previous incarnation.  For a time I had a job that involved covering occasionally (various employees took turns) for the shop’s switchboard operator when she went on break or vacation.  Ours was a more modern, push-button system, but it took time to learn to do it well—and not drop calls or connect the wrong people.  When a lot of lights started flashing at the same time, it was easy to commence hyperventilating.  Or cry.

Not so for the shop's official switchboard operator, a terrifyingly efficient young woman who had previously worked for THE TELEPHONE COMPANY (as it was known in those days, when there was only one).  She had certain trained mannerisms that made her sound, sometimes, a little like the Lily Tomlin character Ernestine.  When she deliberately mimicked Ernestine, she was pretty hilarious.

In the early days, people rented telephones in pairs, “linking only two places together through a single line.  Though this made communication more convenient, it was expensive and impractical for a person to call multiple places.” By 1878 the exchange came into being.  After boy telephone operators proved a dismal failure, women were hired, starting in September 1878 with Emma Nutt at the Boston Telephone Company. The lady in the photograph apparently ran the switchboard from her own home, which was often the case in smaller towns.

The photos were taken at the Southwest Florida Museum of History, and quoted material is from information the museum provided.


Karen Anne said...

I had that job in college, with a switchboard with actual plugs.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

This was so interesting. My neighbor across the street (deceased now) worked as a telephone operator in the 1920s. That would have been some job in those days.

Vintage Maison said...

Ha! In my last year at school, I had a Saturday job in a garage working the old dolls' eye switchboard. Frightened the life out of me sometimes. Once, it appeared to have broken down, so the boss called in the repair man. Turned out I had knocked the power switch off, and the board worked perfectly. SO embarassing! My total pay for the morning was 50 pence - about 80cents I suppose. I used to go into town and spend it on lipsticks or records. Those were the days...

Joanna said...

This reminds me of me mother in law, who is 90 on Saturday. She was a switchboard operator for the Fire Service in during the War in Leeds (West Yorkshire UK)& speaks of this sort of switchboead. My husband recalls visiting her workplace in the 1960s and helping with the pictured type of switchboardm by then she worked for a finace company.

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