"Hello" Heroines - Telephone Operators of the Great War Era - 1920

While this story focuses in on the Heroines among the telephone operators during the time of World War 1, the story covers events both at home and in France where the "Hello Girls" were often stationed close to the fighting line. -- GG Archives

The splendid things that have been accomplished by the American telephone girls.

John Smith lay comfortably snoozing in his comfortable bed one cold winter night when suddenly came the jarring jangle of the telephone bell. John hated to get up and answer that call. The telephone was in the hall. It was cold. John was only half awake. Who the deuce wanted him at that hour? John turned over and buried his head in the bed clothes hoping that the insistent clangor would be stilled by the echoes of slumberland.

“Brrrrrr—brrrrrrrr”— The faithful night operator, whose duty it was to get John to that telephone if it were humanly possible, rang again and again, and at last John had to rise and stumble to the hall, knocking his shins against all the furniture and saying very impolite things about the man who invented the telephone.

Mrs. John Smith had just started her baking one Saturday morning and the eggs for John’s favorite cake had reached that point in the process of beating where they must not be left for an instant. Again the hateful telephone bell, the persistent, pestiferous, perturbing tintinnabulation which would not wait a second, eggs or no eggs. Mrs. Smith had to sacrifice the work on the eggs and answer that stubborn summons only to find perhaps that it was nothing important at all for which the central operator had been asked to plug in.

It is a common experience. Who has not, when reclining blissfully in a warm bath, been rudely disturbed by the telephone bell and the hateful consciousness that there is no one to answer it but oneself. If you let it go unanswered you may miss the early announcement that your Uncle Bim has just died and left you a fortune. No one can guess what delightful tidings wait for you at the end of the wire. No mere subscriber can tell on what great tragedy or shrieking comedy life’s curtain may rise to this modern prompter’s bell.

And herein lies the romance of the telephone girl’s job—the most romantic job in the world. Some one may try to tell you that the speed of the present day telephone business has destroyed that romance, but just ask some of the girls who work at the big city exchanges. They have the most exciting things to relate.

The telephone girls have their fingers on the pulse of the world. They have perhaps the biggest opportunities for individual service of any group of young women in existence. They can be of use in the big affairs of the biggest businesses and they can plug in to the most delicate and intricate affairs of the heart.

International loans and the fate of nations have depended upon the quick and efficient service of some little girl sitting before a switchboard attending to her job. Dere Mabel’s happiness may be eternally wrecked if the girl at the switchboard does not help Jack to communicate to Mabel at precisely the right moment the information that he “really do.”

The telephone girls have taken part in some of the most romantic, the most daring and dashing enterprises in modem history and one could fill a book with tales of their heroism. Theirs are no mere “until” jobs entered into with the idea that they will do until Billie or Jim or Tom comes along with the offer of another kind of job.

Even if Billie and Jim and Tom do come, the telephone girls are hard to win away from their positions and they frequently return after marriage to the switchboards and the fascinating lines with which they drive ahead the business and the pleasure of the world.
In Japan, when the subscriber rings up the exchange it goes something like this:

“What number does the honorable son of the moon and stars desire?”

“Hohi, two, three.”

There is silence for a long minute and then the operator resumes:

" Will the honorable person graciously forgive the inadequacy of the insignificant service and permit the humble slave of the wire to inform him that the never-to-be-sufficiently-censured line is busy.”

This is rather different from our curt American busy signal given by the girl at the “B’’ board who never talks to the subscribers at all, but who connects you with the trunk line you want to reach through the medium of the "A" girl and her "numbah pleeuz."

They have to be brief, these American telephone girls with their hundreds of calls every day and their winking switch boards whose red eyes are constantly on them.

There are only a certain number of lines that one girl can handle, and yet on a busy exchange that has not been able to get any new equipment since the war, the red lights will burn and keep on burning when all the plugs are in the jacks —and it is then that diplomacy and tact must come into play to handle the irate and often ignorant subscriber who has had to wait for his number.

Why Telephone Operators are Girls

"That's why they're girls—these telephone operators," says Mrs. Frederick Dewhurst, who has charge of the welfare work for the Chicago telephone girls. "The company tried boys once, and once only. It was discovered that the boys were making engagements with some of the men subscribers to meet them in the alley after business hours and settle their scores with their fists.

The girls are polite and patient, quick-witted and sympathetic, and loyal as the day is long. That's why they're girls." Loyal as the day is long! Yes, and sometimes their day is very long indeed, far beyond the regulation eight or ten hours when a big public catastrophe causes the switchboards to blaze with lights after the normal traffic is over.

Telephone Operators Handle Floods

Sometimes these girls, whom we so impatiently abuse, lay down their lives for us and the honor of the job. Such a one was Mrs. Sarah Rooke, chief operator at Folsom, New Mexico, who was carried away by the flood a year ago. "Ah, yes" we say. "A heroine! Splendid thing to do. Stuck to her post till the last. Went down with the ship. Three cheers for Mrs. Rooke!"

And then we go on our busy way and when the next telephone operator is a little slow in getting our num ber we impatiently jerk her up with "What's the matter there? Gone to sleep?" or some such pleasantry.

There has been talk at various times of a new kind of telephone by which the subscriber cannot only hear the voice of tie person with whom he wishes to communicate, but can also look upon his face. Sup pose such a thing were possible. Suppose too that we were able by some little electrical device to see what the operator is doing at the switchboard.

Suppose we had been able to look into that little exchange at Folsom, New Mexico, presided over by Sarah Rooke. It is dark there. The wind howls around the building and the rain beats upon the windows.

Outside, the river, swollen with days of heavy downpour, rushes on its devastating way, spread ing over the country and sweeping along with it trees, houses, barns and livestock, undermining telephone poles, and coming ever nearer to the little room where the chief operator sits alone at the switchboard, plugging in.

Her hair is disordered, her face is white; but the slender hands which pick up the plugs are steady and her voice is clear. She is captain of the sinking ship. The flood has come faster than any one dreamed it would. The other operators, the crew, have been cared for—the captain saw to that—and when they wanted to stay with her, she told them sternly to do as they were bid.

She would come too, she assured them, as soon as she had warned a few more of their danger. It would be all right. And so she stays there at the switchboard, this little woman, stays until the water begins to come in at the door of the exchange, till it forces the door and sweeps everything before it.

They found her a few days later lying near some reeds by the edge of the river.

The Bombing in Chicago, 1918

Here is another picture which you might have seen had you been able to look through the mouthpiece of your telephone when you called a certain number in Chicago’s loop district in the early fall of 1918. This switchboard was in the office of the British Recruiting Mission just across the street from the Chicago Post Office.

I, myself, happened to be in that vicinity so I didn’t need any patent device to help me picture the bravery of the telephone operator. You may remember that it was just about this time when an inspired madman decided that some of us had lived long enough in the vicinity of the Federal building and tried to blow a few hundred of us to bits.

As a newspaper representative, of course, I was on the spot when the bomb went off and I rushed into the Mission to telephone to my city editor. The infernal machine had shaken every building near it and the whole front window of the Mission was blown out. Glass was falling everywhere and no one knew when another bomb might explode.

A recruiting officer had a squad of rookies in hand and the poor things, though standing as straight as they could, looked scared to death. We were all scared. Several people had been killed. The Adams street side of the post office was crumbling. Ambulances were dashing up to the scene. Policemen and soldiers began to arrive. The only cool person I saw was the girl at the switchboard.

“Just a moment, please,” she would say, and go on with her work, trying to handle the calls which came in so fast that her hands fairly flew over the board. She would give an involuntary shudder when another pane of glass would go crashing down, and her voice was pitched higher to carry above the noise—that was all. She was polite, cool, efficient.

“Dam it all, how do they get that way?” questioned a young officer off duty as he looked at her. “Do you know that girl only gave a little bit of a scream when the bomb went off, then she settled right back at the board and she sticks to it There’s nerve for you!”

They are loyal, these girls. We have had proof of it time and again. A big fire breaks out in some theater just at the close of the performance. You think your daughter is in that audience. You hope that she may have gone somewhere else, but you are not sure. You must find out at once if she is safe. The street cars are too slow. You and hundreds of others like you rush to the telephones, and the girls of the first night shift, just removing their sets for the rest period, put them on again, turn back and work uncomplainingly with the second-group boards to relieve the suspense of anxious relatives and friends.

Late in the afternoon of a dull day, a dirigible carrying passengers catches fire in mid-air and plunging downward a thousand feet crashes through the roof of a well-known bank in the heart of the city, causing a big explosion and the loss of many lives. Then is no time to think of being tired. The switchboards are alive with questions which must be answered for humanity's sake, and the telephone girls remain at their posts.

"I have seen our girls working with all their might while the tears streamed down their cheeks," one of the old operators told me. "It was at the time of the Eastland disaster, and maybe we weren't busy that day! Lots of the girls had relatives on the boat, and they were just wild with anxiety, of course.

But did they desert their posts? Not a bit of it. They stuck, and it was a good thing they did, for everyone in the world wanted us that day; the newspapers calling up the forty-fifth cousins of everyone who had been on the boat and trying to get pictures, the rela tives all phoning each other, and the public in general keeping us jumping.

It was the same thing on Armistice Day—only then the girls cried tears of joy and we thought we'd never be able to get them to take any rest. They were so excited that they wanted to catch every single call that came in. You'd have thought that General Pershing himself was at the end of every wire."

The "Hello Girls" of France

The telephone girls had the right to glory in the victory won. Did they not have a glorious share in the winning? It was said early in the war that American women were not wanted overseas with the American army. Then somebody persuaded somebody else that the war could not be won without the telephone girls and so—-

Well, in June and July of 1918 when Paris was threatened by the enemy and our own American boys were massed in thousands between the French capital and the German guns, it was a corps of American telephone girls, sixty of them working at the switchboards, who helped to save the city and to win the second battle of the Marne.

General Gallieni's army of taxicabs which saved Paris in the first Marne fight can have no greater credit than these slim young members of the United States Signal Corps. They knew things, those signal corps girls, that all the world wanted to know and couldn't.

Those girls with the American army northwest of Verdun, knew things, when in October before the armistice, they won the admiration of the whole world by remaining at their posts in burning wooden barracks in the Moselle region till ordered to quit.

Their names will go down in history to the everlasting glory of the American girl: Miss Grace D. Banker, of Passaic, New Jersey, chief operator, and the first girl to join the A. E. F.; Maria Flood, of Chicago; Louise Beraud, of San Antonio; Adele Pappock, of Seattle; Helen Hill, also of Seattle; Marie Cooper, Marion Lange, Miss Hunt, and Julie Russell of the YMCA, attached to the telephone girls' dormitory.

Then there were the two girls who had charge of the Murat Palace switchboard during President Wilson's visit to Paris. They must have had some interesting experiences upon which they will, of course, be forever discreetly silent. Then there was the girl who "never listened in," Maria Flood, of Chicago, who had charge of the Peace Conference switchboard for the President.

A reporter said to Miss Flood when she came back and was being interviewed in New York: "I suppose you knew everything that went on over the wire regarding the Peace Conference."

Miss Flood replied, "No. I never listened in once." "And wasn't I glad to be able to cross my heart on it," she wrote afterwards to friends.

"You see we were on our honor." It didn't need a war, however, to bring out the courage and devotion of the telephone operators. In strikes, riots and dis asters of all kinds, they have proved what girls can do who are interested in their jobs and who work conscientiously and fearlessly.

The Floods of Corpus Christi

Perhaps the most striking instance is that of the Texas operators in the November floods at Corpus Christi, Galveston, Port Aransas, and other seaports where the enraged waters piled up scores of dead and would have added many more had it not been for the dauntless courage of these girls.

Their own homes were flooded, many of them, and yet instead cf seeking safety for themselves, they stood by to relieve at the call of human suffering. "Service" was their slogan and they served. They left their flooded homes and went to work in bathing suits at flooded exchanges.

Mrs. Blanche Prather, like Mrs. Sarah Rooke, stuck to her post until the central office at Port Aransas began to go down. She fared better than Mrs. Rooke; she was rescued just in time, but her heroism was equally great. The Corpus Christi operators defied the flood and storm, which near the city park tossed the telephone poles about as if they had been straws and carried ships up into the back yards of private residences.

Galveston operators, who have seen many floods, all stuck to their posts and maintained service in the face of the greatest danger. "I shall never again permit myself to get out of patience with the telephone girls," said the mayor of Galveston after the catastrophe, "nor would anyone else who considers for a moment the service these girls have rendered."

The Role of Chief Operator

Why should we get out of patience with them? Do we really know anything about their work. Here are a few side-lights given by Miss Lucile Roberts, of Norman, Oklahoma, who is chief operator in one of the exchanges of that town and who writes in the "Southwestern Telephone News" on "The Exquisite Pleasure of Being a C. O." "I do not believe folks realize," she says, "the thousand and one things a chief operator has to do anyway; especially a chief operator in the medium-sized towns which are large enough to require a lot of attention, but not large enough to have all the work specialized.

"First she has to see that the force is kept up and well trained, usually doing the training herself. On days when they are short she has to rearrange the schedule of work, change somebody here and another person there and spread them all out to cover as much space as possible, in the meantime smoothing Madge's ruffled feathers because she didn't get as good hours as Susie did, and appeasing Matilda who didn't want to sit on that position at all (she wanted the one Alice has) at the same time trying to get a different head-set for Sarah who complains that hers hurts.

The chief operator, too, has a great deal of the clerical work to do on a small exchange and there are always several special reports that just have to go in. Part of the supervising falls to her lot, including answering information, trouble department, and public toll. And so it goes.

Finally the last job is finished, fourteen hours of work have been crowded into eight or nine and she has the happy feeling of work well done. But that night just as she is drifting into dreamland an awful thought brings her wide awake. "Horrors! Here is the day gone and I didn't get a single toll-timing test the district chief asked for!"

So you see we play a varied role, but after all we love our work and we wouldn't trade places with the best of you. Our trials are forgotten and the world wears a rosy hue when some subscriber calls in and says "I want to thank you, Miss C. O. for the excellent service I got on such and such a call. That was the best service I ever got. Oh my! That is bliss.

" Unlike Miss Flood, who "never listened in," I did "listen in" once at a luncheon where a tableful of old telephone operators were reminiscing. Dear old girls, most of them with white hair. "Yes," said one, a pleasant looking woman past fifty, "I have been with the telephone service for nearly thirty years.

When I came to Chicago there were only seven exchanges. Now they have thirty, not including the suburban ones. Times have changed, but the old spirit still exists— the spirit of service and the thrill of the work. Things happen all the time on a big city exchange. When you see that little red light burning and you answer its call and there's no one talking on the other end — Well, it mayonly be some careless person who has left the receiver off the hook, but it might be and it has been known to be, a mute call for help from some helpless woman who is overpowered before she can make any other effort to call for assistance. "

The signal shows that something is wrong and a quick-witted operator has been known to save a life by quick action. Yes, there's still romance in it and adventure and a lot of fun too." They told, then, of Maggie Mackin, "the best telephone oper ator in the world," retired now on a pension and married to one of the officials of the Bell Telephone Company. She was an operator for thirty-three years.

"We had always the habit of putting up the hardest jobs to Maggie Mackin," one of the C.hicago telephone heads has said. "If our machine began to creak at any part, she knew intuitively just where to inject the lubrica tion." It was Miss Mackin who helped to make a success of the new kind of switchboard adopted by the company during the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

And so when the officials decided to provide a good rest home and vacation camp for the telephone girls they thought of the best one they had ever had and they named the place Margaret Mackin Hall. Miss Mackin, or Mrs. Hyatt as she is now, went out to the dedication and laid the cor nerstone for the home which is situated in beautiful grounds at Warrenville, Illinois, a short ride from Chicago. There is a large portrait of the best telephone operator over the mantel in the living room.

Isn't it worth while doing your job so well that you're known as the best? Subscribers may be crusty, but the honors do come in the end.

Lucy Calhoun, "'Hello' Heroines: The Splendid Things that Have been Accomplished by the American Telephone Girls," in The Green Book Magazine, Chicago: The Story-Press Corporation, Vol. XXIV, No. 5, November 1920, pp. 72-74.

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