My 2nd great aunt Alice Katherine Begert was born February 24, 1899 in Ohio, the 5thchild born to John J. Begert and Marie Herrmann Begert. She was the youngest member of the family for most of her life (she also had 6 additional older half-siblings from her father’s first marriage). The 6thand true youngest child of John and Marie, a girl named Freda, died at age 11 in 1912, when Alice was 13, from tuberculosis. Their father would die only 5 months after Freda, on October 26, 1912, and the family would have to survive on their own.
John J. and Marie’s eldest child, Charles Albert (my great grandfather), had left home as soon as he could to set up his own home and was married with a son by October of 1912. Eldest daughter Rosa Louise had married a mere 3 weeks before John J’s death. That left Marie and her 3 youngest surviving daughters: Lena, Martha, and Alice. By 1930, 28 years later, not much had changed. All 3 girls (now aged 35, 33, and 31) still lived in the home with their mother. Lena had been employed as a servant in a family’s home since she was a teenager (she would never marry), Martha was working as a secretary in a bank (she would marry 2 years later, have a son, divorce, and be back in the home by 1940), and Alice was a telephone operator at the Ohio Central Telephone Company.
Alice appeared to have done very well in this profession. By 1937, she was the chief operator of the Wooster branch. Doing well in this profession was not as easy as it may sound. That Alice rose to the position she did indicates a person with great composure as well as dedication.
The job of a telephone operator in the 1930s seemed like something of a mix of personal secretary and 911 operator. Operators would work long hours in shifts and be expected to stay on the premises, even when it was not their shift, so that they would be available in case of an emergency.
One had to be a proficient multi-tasker with a good memory and excellent communication skills. The telephone switchboard was a large vertical panel filled with holes (or jacks) into which the operator would have to insert the correct phone plug to connect the call. By the time Alice was doing it, the occupation had been taken over by women, as they were considered more friendly and pleasant to speak to from a customer service standpoint. These ladies were known as “Hello Girls,” a term that came about during World War I and stuck.
In addition to the routine calls she would get would be people asking the time, the weather, or the news. Local officials sometimes called to leave their contact information in case they expected to be away from their office. If a fire was called in, the telephone operators would call the fire station and the property owners to alert them. Operators in smaller offices sometimes also had to do double duty and pitch in for technical work and repair jobs.
Just because she was polite and soothing, didn’t mean her customers were. She often had to deal with angry customers, mumblers, those who talked her ear off, children who would pick up and refuse to hang up, and, of course, men on the make.
Being polite and courteous was not the only requirement. A telephone operator must have what was deemed to be an “attractive” (ie: upper class and white) voice, which opened the door to racial and ethnic discrimination. Immigrants, non-whites, and anyone with an accent were rejected for the job. Even though the job required her to be heard and not seen, height (tall women were preferred), weight (slim), arm length (long), and even how she dressed (prim and tidy) was considered. Unmarried women were the ideal. Once she married, she found herself out of a job.
Not only were the requirements strict and the hours long, often the women were underpaid. In July 1935, 25 telephone operators from Alice’s company walked out on strike in an effort to demand higher wages. The strike lasted all of 5 minutes before the company agreed to negotiate. I can’t help but wonder if Alice was one of the 25.
It certainly wasn’t a job for everyone (whether that was their choice or not), but it was considered respectable work for a woman until the job became outdated and unnecessary in the 1960s. It was also an avenue for female friendship and comraderie. In a 1937 newspaper clipping I found, it detailed Alice kicking up her heels at a weeknight weiner roast with 5 of her female co-workers. That same year, a film came out with the straightforward title of Telephone Operator, the story of the female title character who has to handle a flood of phone calls while an actual flood puts the community in danger (yes, that’s actually the premise). I wonder if Alice and her co-workers saw this film and what their thoughts were, if so…
A “Hello Girl” for her entire young adult life, Alice never married or had children. She died at the age of 85 on March 24, 1984, having left Ohio and its switchboards for Florida and its sunshine years before.
“Telephone Operators.” Engineering and Technology History Wiki, 28 Sept. 2015, https://ethw.org/Telephone_Operators.
“Think You’ve Got What It Takes to Be a 1920s Telephone Operator?” A Smile and a Gun, 27 Apr. 2016, https://smileandgun.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/do-you-have-what-it-takes-to-be-a-1920s-telephone-operator/.
Adams, Anne. “Telephone Operators on the Job in the 1930s .” Athens Daily Review, 18 July 2015, https://www.athensreview.com/news/local_news/telephone-operators-on-the-job-in-the-s/article_7cb9bab6-2cb3-11e5-aa4c-d7f29c0cb726.html.