Switchboard operators on Capitol Hill can be seen at work in this undated photo from the Library of Congress archives. Library of Congress

The job wasn’t much like Lily Tomlin’s switchboard skit on “Laugh-In” in the 1970s. Tomlin’s Ernestine was sassy. She snorted at her own jokes.

Real telephone operators back in the day had to be polite, efficient, and serious. They worked hard to keep up with incoming calls and reroute them to specific receivers, using the best technology of the day to connect callers with the people they were trying to reach.

At busier exchanges, some wore roller skates to get around quickly when their “cord boards” lit up.

Bev Spofford of Hebron never wore roller skates, but she put through calls for 30 years beginning in 1960 in Lewiston.

Sometimes she used a 10-key tandem board, a simple machine used for small systems.

“You’d get a tone in your ear, and you would say, ‘Your number, please,’” she said.

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She also used a cord board, which would light up when a call came in. “You’d plug in a cord and say, “’May I help you?’”

By the ’60s, advancing technology meant most callers didn’t need operators to make local phone calls, though in more rural areas they were needed for another decade. But operators continued to patch through collect calls, person-to-person calls and long-distance calls. They used massive directories to look up numbers and they had to reach almost 3 feet with each arm to answer calls, Spofford said.

She called it “good exercise.”

Spofford, now 80, misses those days, and many of her co-workers have passed on. She keeps a notebook with their obituaries encased in plastic. Forty-three so far.

To keep in touch with fellow operators still living, Spofford organized the Belles of New England Telephone. Through a letter to the Sun Journal’s Sun Spots column, she drew 30 retired switchboard operators to a reunion last December in Auburn, where they swapped stories and got reacquainted.

Bev Spofford at her home Monday afternoon in Hebron. Spofford said the job of telephone operator meant sometimes dealing with angry callers. “We were supposed to know everything and do everything.” Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

WIGS, SIESTAS AND ‘STICKY NOSE’ RESTAURANT

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It was a “swell time,” said Shirley Biron of Auburn, recalling the reunion. Biron had a few stories of her own to share. She reminisced during a recent interview that a co-worker named Evelyn once had an urgent need to visit the restroom during her shift.

“We had to sit on these very high stools, and you weren’t allowed to leave your board until a supervisor plugged in an adapter and took over,” Biron said. “The supervisor came and plugged in, but Evelyn forgot to unplug because she was rushing.”

Well, Evelyn was wearing a wig and when her headset — still plugged in — yanked away, “her wig flew off and all these hairpins came out and flew everywhere,” Biron said.

Another time, she said, a “French gentleman” called from out of state to ask for the number to Steckino’s Restaurant, a popular, upscale “social place to be” in Lewiston, now closed.

The man’s accent was so strong that Biron didn’t hear him correctly and asked, “You want the Sticky Nose Restaurant?”

The man replied, “’Operator, are you for real?’”

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International calls also could be tricky, she said. Sometimes when she put a call through to Mexico, for example, the person being called was taking a siesta.

“Someone would have to go out and get that person from on top of a mountain,” she said.

Biron, now 73, worked for 30 years as a switchboard operator, first in Lewiston, then in Portland when regional operations were consolidated in 1987.

Operators from Lewiston, Norway-South Paris, Rumford, Livermore Falls, Augusta and Rockland, among other towns, had to commute to Portland, Spofford said.

She preferred the early days in Lewiston when the telephone offices were on Park Street, she said.

In the earliest days, before her time, only single women were hired because they had to be available for shifts around the clock, Spofford said.

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Later, married women with families were hired and were allowed to work around their home life. The switchboard was open 24/7.

When Spofford started her job, women were required to wear dresses, not too short. Later, slacks were allowed, but they had to be part of an ensemble. Yes, pantsuits.

Switchboard operators smile for the camera in this 1956 photo from the Library of Congress archives. The location is unknown and none of the operators, including the Lucille Ball look-alike wearing the hat, are identified. Library of Congress

TELEPHONE OPERATORS: A WOMEN’S PROFESSION

Though the first switchboard operator was a 17-year-old boy, by the beginning of the 19th century, women dominated the field.

In 1910, 88,000 female operators worked in the United States. By 1920, there were 178,000, and by 1930, 235,000.

As their numbers grew, they became a powerful force, according to history.com. They fought for the right to join unions, went on strike for higher wages and served overseas during World War I as Hello Girls.

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In April 1919, 8,000 operators walked off the job at New England Telephone Co., all but shutting down service in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont for five days.

That’s how long it took the company to meet their demands for higher wages and the right to bargain collectively.

With the coming of the 1930s, technology that allowed telephone users to simply dial another phone without the aid of an operator had become widespread. Phone companies took advantage of the moment to slash their workforces, and thousands of operators lost their jobs. By 1940, there were fewer than 200,000 in all.

In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of 5,000 workers it classifies as “telephone operators” plus another 69,900 categorized as “switchboard operators including answering service.” And it expects more than 20 percent of those jobs to disappear by 2029, according to history.com’s “The Rise and Fall of Telephone Operators.”

Because of the occupation’s critical nature and unionization, however, a switchboard operator position became a good-paying job, although the pay was not “extraordinary” unless you worked overtime, Lorraine Luce of Poland said in a recent interview. She began working at the Lewiston exchange in 1967.

“It was the most fun,” she said. “It was really enjoyable. It truly was. We all had the same feelings about it. I thank God for that experience.”

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Others work as hard or harder and don’t get the money they deserve, she said.

“I am grateful and blessed,” she said.

Luce retired from the telephone company in 1991 with a pension. Now 79, she is wistful about those days.

She doesn’t recall a dress code, but women dressed “officiously,” she said. High heels and skirts or dresses. No mini dresses, and “nothing declaring, like those shirts that are cut really low. Everyone dressed respectfully.”

And everyone behaved respectfully.

“I think that’s who we were at the time,” she said. “We were dependable and trustworthy. We did the job to the best of our ability. It was honesty, I would say.”

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This 1924-era telephone switchboard is on display at the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Original description reads: “Can I direct you?” wikipedia.org

ANSWERING THE CALL: PIGEONS, MANHOLES AND LONELY VOICES

Luce recalled the time someone opened the windows at the office and pigeons came inside.

“We were worried they would sit on the cords,” she said. Or something worse.

Another time, a man called wanting to buy a manhole cover, she said. “He wanted to put it in his garden. I referred him to management.”

She guessed that the man had seen telephone company workers going below ground to work on the lines and had assumed the phone company owned the manhole covers.

All of the operators’ memories were not pleasant, though.

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Bev Spofford of Hebron holds up a blanket she has that features telephone-themed images. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Spofford once had to put through a call for the parents of a baby who had suffered crib death. She knew the family. “It was very sad,” she said.

This was before the 911 system was in place. Switchboard operators were responsible for emergency calls.

Spofford said she sometimes also would get angry callers. “We were supposed to know everything and do everything,” she said.

Other people were simply lonely.

A local woman would call the switchboard “all the time, just to talk, to have conversations,” Biron said. They would oblige her if they weren’t too busy.

Working on the switchboard was her favorite job ever, Biron said. “We had so many fun times. I got to know so many people. I was blessed.”

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Not everyone was suited for the job, though. For one thing, you had to have near-perfect attendance, she said. You could be excused for three incidents per year. And you’d better not be late for your shift. “We had to be there no matter what,” Spofford said, “no matter what the weather.”

And then there were the “observers” who listened in on calls secretly in a back room.

“I was always polite,” Biron said, “but some would tell the customers — you know.” That could get you fired.

You also had to keep track of the calls on a clock by putting a “ticket” in a slot to measure the length of the call for the right charges. If you made a mistake, you’d hear from corporate, Biron said.

As for the Belles, Biron’s looking forward to the next get-together, planned for this coming summer.

Luce is ready, too.

“That was super,” she said. “Everyone was very recognizable. Age did not change who they are. We were a family, really. We worked hard and we worked together.”


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