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We've Got Your Number!

This is a reminiscence/discussion activity about the days of the telephone switchboard operator and party lines. It doesn't seem that long ago when telephones were bulky, awkward to use, and not very private. Get comfy, pull out an old phone book, and let's remember when…

Preparations & How-To's

  • Print a copy of this complete discussion below for the facilitator to present. Check out the links in the article for additional information to bring to the activity
  • Print copies of the picture page to pass around during the activity.
  • Round up some telephone books to bring to the activity to generate conversation and memories.
  • Also, if you want, download this PDF slide presentation to go along with the discussion. Show it on your widescreen TV. If this slideshow is useful and you would like to see more in the future, let us know.
  • Check the "Additional Activities" for additional information to bring to the activity.

 


"Number, Please!"

This phrase was uttered by hundreds of thousands of telephone operators as they guided callers to their desired destinations—perhaps a friend, loved one, grocery store, or business establishment. Long before our current age of cell phones—which are roughly the size of a powder compact and come complete with cameras, flashlights, video cameras, texting, and Internet—telephones were bigger than a breadbox and hung on the wall. There were no dials, numbers, call-waiting, or even a handset. You listened through an earpiece on a short cord and spoke into a similar fixed piece on the big, oak wall unit. You picked up the earpiece, and if you were using the earliest phones, you had to crank first. The first word you heard was, "Operator.” You would state the nature of your business, and if you wanted to speak to someone, you would hear, "Number, please.” On the other end, an operator was busily plugging in cords on a large board to connect you to the proper party.

Young boys were the first operators, but because they lacked manners and excelled in mischief, ladies quickly replaced them and became nearly synonymous with the job. Local operators in particular came to be very familiar to their customers, receiving regular calls asking for the time, news, weather, gossip, and the whereabouts of family and friends. Over time, companies realized that operators were important representatives of their establishments, so they devised guidelines for employment. Foreign accents were not allowed. Elocution lessons were often required; these lessons discouraged the use of slang and helped erase accents. Conversation was kept businesslike, and gossiping was frowned upon. Small offices retained their homey appeal and personal attention.

There were telephone operators who were employed by telephone companies; other switchboard operators were employed by businesses, such as hotels and office buildings, to handle their various phone lines. Depending on the size of the board and the demands placed upon it, those hired could range from high school girls working a few hours after school to mature women working full time. Many small-town offices had only one operator who lived on the premises and handled all calls, day and night. Larger offices could employ dozens.

Because they were the link between individuals, businesses, and governments across the globe, operators were vital in the communication loop, connecting millions upon millions of calls. In a day when there was no 911, it would be safe to say that the vast majority of operators at one time in their careers handled a call that saved a life or permitted a quick response to an emergency. They were the soothing, familiar voice to a frightened child who was home alone or a worried parent looking for their child; they were the friendly voice on the other end of the line who could be counted upon to find an answer; they were the calm voice competently handling routine calls; they were the lifeline summoning help.

As telephone companies expanded and improved services, operators handled fewer and fewer transactions. Direct dialing eliminated the need to go through the operator for anything other than long-distance or overseas calls, and even these eventually gave way to technology. There are still operators on duty in select businesses and locales. Some phone companies have come to realize that, on occasion, only a "real human" can satisfy a customer. Today, most of those jobs fall under customer service, however.

"One Ringy-Dingy..."

Comedienne Lily Tomlin brought to life telephone operator Ernestine on the 1960s television program Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Some of her trademark quotes are, "One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingys," "A gracious good afternoon, this is Miss Tomlin from the telephone company," and "Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” She had a distinctive snort to her laugh and a penchant for gossip and talking to her boyfriend, Vito, and friend, Phoenicia. She often acted as a collection agent for the telephone company, trying to extract payment from wily characters. Ernestine's skits good-naturedly poked fun at nosy operators and all-powerful telephone companies.

Discussion Starters

  • Were you, or someone you knew, a telephone operator?
  • On the Andy Griffith Show, the operator's name was Sarah. Do you recall the name of a telephone operator in your past?
  • Did your town have an operator who lived in the telephone office? Did you ever visit there?
  • Did you know anyone who worked for the telephone company?

What's Your Number?

While numbers in small communities may be only a few digits long, many were not numbers at all, but rather a combination of long and short rings, necessary if you were utilizing a party line system. Party lines were shared by two or more homes, and if you heard your special ring, you knew the call was for you. Of course, that didn't necessarily stop others on the party line from picking up to take a listen!

  • Do you remember your first telephone number?
  • Did you have your own telephone, or did you have to make calls from another phone?

Exchanges in larger towns and cities were given names followed by five digits. A famous example of this is the song by Glenn Miller, “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” You would dial the numbers that corresponded to the first two letters of the exchange name, in this case P=7 and E=3, so this full number would be 736-5000. There were many familiar exchanges across the country: BElmont, FAirfax, EMpire, MUrray, CEntral, and who can forget BUtterfield, made famous in the movie Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor?

Some Fun Facts

  • The very first phone conversation was "Watson come here, I want you!" This exchange was between Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas A. Watson. It took place in Boston on March 10, 1876.
  • "Hello" was suggested by Thomas Edison, which is our standard telephone greeting, but "Ahoy" was the idea of Alexander Graham Bell.
  • Eavesdropping on telephone calls began with Alexander Graham Bell's landlady. In 1877, he invented his version of a soundproof booth to thwart her.
  • Read here for more interesting tidbits.

Party Lines

Forever linked together are telephone operators and party lines. Today we take for granted having private phone lines and conversations, but for much of the population in the early 20th century that was not the case. Two or more households shared a phone line, each one being assigned a distinctive ring to identify incoming calls as their own, e.g., two shorts/one long, one long/one short, two longs/two short, etc.

An ongoing problem with the shared phone line was the habit of eavesdropping. Some people enjoyed listening in on other people's calls. This practice was also called "rubbering." The consequences could range from annoyance to a feud. News of a first grandchild is something special to share, but it can be quickly spoiled if the neighbor lady across the field tells everyone in the church circle first. If a family were receiving news of a loved one's passing, the last thing they wanted was a nosy neighbor spreading the word before they had a chance to tell friends or their pastor. There were as many ways to combat this as there were ways to listen in. Sometimes the eavesdropper was taunted into giving themselves away by saying, "Mrs. So-and-So always listens to our calls," to which Mrs. So-and-So would answer, "I do not!” Oops! One lady raised turkeys, so hearing gobbling in the background was a good indicator she was eavesdropping.

In some systems, you could ring all the phones on your party line at the same time by calling your own number and hanging up. This was used as a prank but also to alert everyone to an emergency. Fires were common in homes and barns, so this method of summoning help could be a lifesaver.

While party lines are more closely associated with the old wall phones, they were also widely used when phones went to direct dial. It was cheaper to have a party line, and if you didn't use the phone much or were willing to put up with the pitfalls of sharing a line, it was a good alternative to a higher bill. Party lines are still in use in the United States today. For example, in Big Santa Anita Canyon in California, a group camp, pack station, and 81 cabins are all connected by a crank-type phone.

We salute the early telephone operators for their dedication and sacrifice in providing unparalleled service to individuals, communities, and our world. For some funny stories, you can read about party lines on Prince Edward Island, some delightful recollections about telephone operators in Nebraska, or the last party line system in Minnesota. Who would have guessed you could create a speaker by suspending a receiver in a stone crock?!

For Discussion

  • Did you grow up with a party line?
  • Do you have any humorous stories to share?
  • Would you have a party line now?
  • How might telephone usage change in the next 20 years?

Additional Activities

  1. Here is a selection of Ernestine audio sketches that are fun to listen to.
  2. Watch this wonderful ATT video on 1930s operators.
  3. Play the telephone game with a paper towel tube as your "phone.” Set up two teams and whisper two different sentences that each team must pass down the line. For an added twist, have the sentence come back up the line to its beginning point. There are often hilarious results!
  4. Would you qualify to be a telephone operator? Review this sample job with participants.
  5. Watch the movie Pillow Talk, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day, for a funny take on party lines.