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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Workday Wednesday: Telephone Operators

To keep up with the growth of telephone networks, multiple switchboards were introduced. Operators sat before the middle panel of a three-panel board which contained jacks for subscriber lines, and could stretch to reach the jacks on the left and right panels. They sometimes worked in groups of three. Almost all telephone operators were women. They often answered 125 calls or more per hour.

Telephone service came to Middle Tennessee in 1880. In 1885, my great-great-grandfather's sister Jennie Tarkington worked for the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Co. in Nashville. The following year, her sister Julia also worked for the company, which moved its headquarters to Nashville in 1888. For more than thirty years, members of the Tarkington family were telephone operators. My great-grandmother's sister Margaret "Maggie" Tarkington was working for the Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph Co. in 1898, at the age of 14. In 1903, her sister Viola Maydell Tarkington and her cousin Susie Tarkington were also working for the company. Jennie and Julia's sister Adeline Sophronia "Fronie" Tarkington worked as a telephone operator for the East Tennessee Telephone Co. in Chattanooga in 1904. In 1905, Maggie, Viola, and my great-grandmother Gertrude Tarkington were all working at 180 3rd Av. N. in Nashville, where the East Tennessee Telephone Co. was located. By 1910, Maggie was the only one still working as a telephone operator, and she continued working in this field through 1917, when she was an operator at the post office.

Hello! The Telephone Girl
Lipartito, Kenneth.  "When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890-1920." American Historical Review 99 (1994): 1074-1111.
Telephone service comes to Robertson

Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company stamp. Available from

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1885

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1898

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1908

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1898

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1903

Chattanooga, Tennessee city directory, 1904

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1905

Nashville, Tennessee city directory, 1917

"Operators at Work in the Telephone Exchange", New Orleans, 1893. Artist not credited; signed but not legible (Via Times-Picayune archive) [Public domain]. Available from Times-Picayune Archive and Wikimedia Commons.

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