On September 1, 1878, a Boston woman named Emma Nutt made history—and all she had to do was pick up the phone. But the first woman telephone operator didn’t just connect calls and answer customers’ questions. Her soothing voice helped usher in a new era of telecommunications and create an entirely new job field for women.
Before Nutt came along, making a phone call was a matter of simply picking up the phone. Phones worked pretty much like telegraphs—a wire in your phone would connect with a wire in someone else’s. No phone number, operator, or even dialing necessary; if you wanted to talk to more than one person, you’d need more than one phone.
Obviously this wasn’t going to work for wide-scale telephone use. Luckily, a better idea soon emerged: the telephone exchange. This system relied on a switchboard between callers. A caller would pick up the phone and speak with an operator, who would then manually patch through their call to the recipient. The first-ever commercial switchboard—made with “carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids, and bustle wire” and serving 21 customers—debuted in New Haven, Connecticut in January 1878.
This innovation opened up communication—and job opportunities. Enterprising business owners quickly realized the potential of this new technology. The same month the switchboard opened in New Haven, a Boston entrepreneur opened an exchange of his own.
Edward Holmes owned a bustling home security company that relied on telegraphs to send alarm signals to a central office. When he saw the phone demonstrated, he realized it would be even better. In January 1878, Holmes opened the Telephone Despatch Company and hired teenage boys to answer calls and staff the switchboard, which involved rushing around a gigantic wall cluttered with confusing wires and holes.
Big mistake. The more boys Holmes hired, the more unruly and noisy they became. In the grand tradition of teenagers, they were also rude and, sometimes, profane.
Boy operators were known for their practical jokes and even wrestling matches on the job. They shouted “ahoy!” into the phones with cracking voices. (This was the greeting preferred by Alexander Graham Bell himself which soon fell out of use in favor of “hello.”) Holmes quickly realized that his immature employees might endanger his business. It was fine when they were behind a silent telegraph line, but a phone was something else altogether.
“The thought came one day,” he later wrote. “Why not have girls?”
His friend, Alexander Graham Bell, who licensed the phones to the dispatch company, hired Emma Nutt away from her job as a telegraph operator. She became the first female telephone operator (her sister, Stella, became the second a few hours later).
Unlike her male colleagues, Nutt was patient and polite. Her voice was soothing and cultured, and she navigated the wall of wires and holes with ease. (Eventually, she stopped physically switching calls and relied on a switchman instead.) Because she had relatively few customers, she got to know many of them and became a familiar voice. And she did it all for just $10 a month.
Other companies saw the benefit of a female operator and began to hire women more extensively. “The wisdom of this step has been fully borne out by experience,” wrote a journalist in 1911.
By taking the switchboard job, Nutt had inadvertently created a new profession for women. Around the turn of the 20th century, single women were joining the workforce in larger numbers (married ones were expected to stay at home and most companies, including telephone companies, only hired single women). But though single women cost less to hire and were considered motivated, hardworking employees, few fields were open to women.
Telephone work was an attractive alternative to a job in a factory or sweatshop, and for many women it was a way to achieve class mobility. However, the profession had its downsides. Technical advancements soon made standing switchboards moot and gave companies an excuse to hire less skilled, non-union workers they could pay even less. “Very quickly,” writes, telecommunications historian Jean Guy-Rens, “the telephone companies abandoned male labor, both teenage and adult, and opted for women’s work.”
Despite a public that swooned over the smooth voices of the “hello girls,” not everyone was allowed into the profession. Telephone companies discriminated against immigrants and black people, and early operators had to be a certain height to make sure they could operate the switchboard. As the voice became more and more important, and operators were often offered diction lessons and elocution classes to make sure they were more poised on the phone. If you had an accent of any kind, you likely wouldn’t get a job as an operator.
Today, telephone switchboards are long gone, and the closest thing the 21st century has to an Emma Nutt is the voice on the other side of operator assistance. But Nutt’s influence remains—and the company she helped succeed eventually became the Bell Phone Company, which evolved over time into AT&T. As for Nutt, she held her job for over 30 years. She set the tone for what was to come—one friendly call at a time.