The First Telephone Switchboard Operators Were Rude Boys
In January 1878, the Boston Telephone Dispatch company had started hiring boys as telephone operators, starting with George Willard Croy. Boys had been very successful as telegraphy operators, but their attitude (lack of patience) and behavior (pranks and cursing) was unacceptable for live phone contact, so the company began hiring women operators instead. Thus, on September 1, 1878, Emma Nutt was hired, starting a career that lasted 33 or 37 years, retiring in 1911 or 1915. A few hours after Emma started work her sister Stella Nutt became the world’s second female telephone operator, making Stella Nutt and Emma Nutt the first two sisters in world history being telephone operators. although, unlike Emma, she stayed for only a few years.
The customer response to her soothing, cultured voice and patience was overwhelmingly positive, so boys were soon replaced by women. In 1879 these included Bessie Snow Balance, Emma Landon, Carrie Boldt, and Minnie Schumann, the first female operators in Michigan.
Emma was hired by Alexander Graham Bell who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone; apparently she changed jobs from a local telegraph office. She was paid a salary of $10 per month for a 54 hour week. She, reportedly, could remember every number in the telephone directory of the New England Telephone Company.
To be an operator, a woman had to be unmarried and between the ages of seventeen and twenty-six. She had to look prim and proper, and have arms long enough to reach the top of the tall telephone switchboard. Much like many other American businesses at the turn of the century, telephone companies discriminated against people from certain ethnic groups and races. African American and Jewish women were not allowed to become operators.