What was your first full-time job after you graduated from high school if you did not plan to go to college? When I graduated in 1954, there were not many choices open for women. Nursing, teaching, and business office jobs were probably the top three areas which allowed women to build a career.
I knew I couldn’t afford to go to college, so my areas of concentration in high school were typing, shorthand and bookkeeping. I worked toward a diploma as a Stenographic Major.
In my senior year, I was able to interview for a couple of positions before graduation. One of them was with the telephone company as a switchboard operator. At that time, Glen Burnie, Maryland was still using operators to handle local calls. I was hired before graduation and couldn’t have been happier. This meant I could begin to earn money right after school was out. The pay was good, and the office was within walking distance from my house. Since I didn’t have a car, that was a very important consideration.
The office was rather small with maybe fourteen operators on duty at one time, twelve for local calls and two on the “B” board for long distance calls. We were supervised by the chief operator and her assistant.
Each operator was responsible for a certain section of the switchboard containing banks of small holes, each one a certain number sequentially arranged, into which she would insert a cord to open the line to communicate with the caller. A light over the hole indicated that someone wanted to call out. To connect the caller to the number they asked for, the operator took another cord and inserted it into the proper hole. She then pulled a little switch forward to ring the called number. At the same time, she punched a small counter to indicate she had taken the call.
We had party lines in rural areas in which two to four families shared a line. A letter, (such as M, W, R, or Y) at the end of the number indicated which family was using the line. As I recall, in order to connect a caller to a certain family, each letter had a particular number of rings like one long or two short so the operator knew how to ring the customer. Caller A might have the number 433W. If “W” required two long rings, the operator would place the cord in the receptacle marked 433 and pull her little switch two times holding it for a few seconds each time. We also had to pronounce numbers very distinctly, especially “five” (fi-uhv) and “nine” (ni-yun).
Every hour the assistant chief operator recorded the number of calls each operator took during that hour. Sometimes she would plug in to an individual’s place to monitor the calls. During periods of performance evaluation, she would talk to each operator about their progress or lack of it. Courtesy with customers was of the utmost importance, and sometimes a customer might not be the most pleasant person to talk to.
At that time, Glen Burnie was also undergoing a transition into a complete dial system. I was not to be involved with that because I had been offered another job. After fourteen months of saying, “Number please”, I moved on to a job that had more of a future for me.
Today if someone were to say “switchboard operator,” there are a couple of generations of young people who probably wouldn’t have a clue what that meant. But it was a fascinating job, and a vital one for keeping a community together.