Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Number, Please....

I mentioned this in the meme I just did, and I had planned to write about it at some time....I guess the time is now.

When I graduated from high school I wanted to go to art school in Chicago. My dad, being the warm fuzzy (not) that he was said there were cheaper ways of finding a husband than to send me to college!!

I decided to get a job and hoped that in the future I could save enough to pay my own way to school. My first job ever, other than a bit of babysitting, was with Illinois Bell Telephone Co. It was 1961 and I was a very innocent 18 year old....I never did get to art school.

Things have sure changed a lot since then! When I applied for a job at the phone company they came to my house to interview my mother!! They asked all sorts of questions of me that would be totally illegal today. One of which was, did I have any objection to working with Negroes....their word, not mine....and my answer was no. Can you imagine an employer asking that question today??!

Apparently I passed muster because I got the job. I began work in the downtown office of my hometown....and I thought I was just sooo grown up! I rented a small apartment just a few blocks from work and was out in the world on my own!

For those of you who are much younger, I worked before there was such a thing as picking up the phone and just dialing another city or state....or country. I worked at a time when you had to dial "O" to get an operator to complete your call!! We sat in front of a large bank of cords and blinking lights and we were the ones who connected you to your loved ones or whoever you were calling.

I got so used to answering "Operator" that even at home I would sometimes answer the phone that way without thinking. We worked in a big room with no windows. There was a lounge area with several telephones where we were allowed to make long distance calls anytime we wanted....well as long as we were on a break. When we worked later than 10:00 PM they provided a taxi (for any female who normally walked to work) to take us home at company expense!! Can you see that happening today?!!

New operators usually got all the crappy shifts which meant a lot of split shifts. I would go in for a few hours in the morning, have several hours off, and then go back in the evening for a few more hours. For a young single person it wasn't too bad. I could run home and take a nap if I needed to or I could just stay out and go shopping or whatever.

You usually had to work there a year or so before you got a regular schedule so every week you would be working different hours. It was bad for trying to plan anything ahead of time!

The pay phones were the ones I dreaded. And you knew which ones they were by the lights that blinked. I tried to catch any other call but those because they made me so nervous. If you answered a pay phone then you were responsible for collecting the right amount of money, then timing the call, and then going back in to tell them their three minutes were up and to please deposit XX amount of money to continue. Many times people would just leave the phone hanging and we weren't able to collect the additional money. Looked bad on your review!

Placing a long-distance call was a bit of a process. First, when we found out where you wanted to call, we had to look up the routing in a book we had at our position. Let's say you wanted to call some small town in Montana. I might have to call several larger towns and then get routing to a smaller town, and then finally to the town that you wanted. Each time, we had to connect with another operator and give them the information as to where we were trying to go. It was nothing like it is today! Calls out of the country were rare at that time but they did happen.

Hotels and motels were a whole other thing, too. When a guest wanted to place a long distance call, the desk clerk would call us and identify themselves, tell us which room was making the call, and then we would complete the call for them. We also timed these calls and then had to call the desk clerk back and give them the amount to charge the room.

Many years later, after I moved to CA I once again worked as an operator. It was all new and different. Most of my problems there centered around learning to understand all those accents. But that's another story! I have several funny stories about being a telephone operator. I might share some of them at another time.


  1. That was interesting read.
    Thank you for sharing.

  2. That was so interesting to read Janet, it was a totally different world then wasn't it? We never had a phone at home when I was growing up, the first one my parents ever had was the one I had installed for them when I married and moved to Hertfordshire. They were scared stiff of it and only used it to speak to us. That's one reason why even now I'm not comfortable talking on the phone to people.

  3. Life has changed. If you don't have a cell phone these days try to find a Pay phone....
    BTW Janet...you are a rose on the GPS collage I made. So glad I found you!

  4. that was really interesting Janet, seriously. Isn't it amazing to think back and see how technology advances simplified things(in some ways)? I'd love to read more.

  5. Ha, that was my first job, too. We got lots of collect calls from truckers to their dispatchers. And pay phone calls to Mexico -- I had many of those left with the receiver dangling! Remember the big deal about placing a 'mobile' call? And now everyone has cell phones.
    Aaaah, memories ...

  6. I'm so glad you wrote this! It was exactly like this for me in the late 60's in our town.
    We had all the nearby big airbase post pay coins. We also had all the young men departing for Vietnam making one last call home. We couldn't collect the coins till we connected them to their party.
    Sad sad sad!
    We also did all the fire, and ambulance dispatching. We wore those plastic sleeves over our shirts to protect from all the graphite pencil. No pants allowed!
    Skirts and dresses only!

  7. Wow! I had no idea how complicated it all was!

  8. Anonymous2:43 PM

    That was great! I remember my mom telling me about working at a phone company as one of her earlier jobs. She said that when she went to apply for the job they asked her if she had any experience, and she said, "Yes I do." Even though she hadn't. So when she started the job, my mother said she had to learn really fast. LOL! When I spoke with her on the phone today we both had a laugh about it because I said that she probably looked like Lucy in one of those funny "I love Lucy." episodes.

  9. That is interesting. Thanks for sharing it. I remember when we had party lines. It was bad enough to share the phone with household members, but with another household too!

  10. LOL..I used to work a hotel switchboard in London with wire and headsets and the likes.. This brought back some fond memories.!!
    Peace, Kai

  11. Finally foundtime to catch up with your blog. I found that really interesting about working for the phone company, it certainly was a complicated job. You never stop to think do you how complicated making a phone call used to he? Might pinch the mem off you sometime as well. Pit y the craft market was a disappointment in crafts.

  12. Oh how fascinating! One ringy dingy--I'm sure you loved Lily Tomlin!! Isn't it amazing how technology has advanced in such a short amount of time? Glad to be back and catch up with your posts!! xo

  13. WOW! I LOVE this post... PLEASE tell more! I want to hear all the funny stories. This brings back memories... our family moved to MN in 1949, but our grandparents were still in CA. We made two long distance phone calls every year, one at Christmas, one on Mother's Day. Waiting for an operator and waiting for the routing is something this impatient child remembers well. To this day, there's a voice in my head that says making long distance calls is not OK... too expensive for the budget. I can't seem to cure myself of this.

  14. Anonymous3:54 PM

    Loved your post. One of my first jobs in 1964 was as a switchboard operator. If I had a dollar for each person I disconnected that first month, I could have retired in luxury.

  15. Time does go by so fast....very interesting reading this Janet...I was just thinking this morning how different our telephones use to be....party lines....princess phones....wall phones.....I remember when we first moved into this house....and I actually got my very own extension phone in my bedroom...ooh-la-la!

  16. The Linda11:30 AM

    How fun fun fun to read. :-)
    On another note your comment: My dad, being the warm fuzzy (not) that he was said there were cheaper ways of finding a husband than to send me to college!!
    Maybe my Dad and yours were related, I was told the very same thing... LOL

  17. Gosh I feel like a parrot...but that's the word for this post: Interesting! Very! I really enjoyed reading about how it used to be. Wow, what a different world it was back them!
    They are a bunch of pretty ladies in those neat pictures.


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