With the spread of COVID-19, the world is settling into a new reality of social distancing and quarantine and relying on technology to retrofit the activities that were previously conducted face-to-face in the classroom, the boardroom, the gym, and the neighborhood café. Videoconferencing and FaceTime calling help fill the void and allow us to connect to faraway colleagues and loved ones as we adapt to a new approach to interpersonal activity.

Our means of communicating was tested and transformed during another pandemic as well. During the 1918-19 flu epidemic, New Yorkers confronted one unexpected side effect—the absence of enough telephone operators to physically connect their phone calls. This female-dominated industry provided an essential service as socially distancing New Yorkers reached out to doctors and family members, and attempted to conduct their lives over the phone. Upon its invention in 1876, the telephone supposed to be used only for conducting business or by elite. Yet by 1918, the influenza pandemic would test its broader capabilities.

From the outset, telephone companies came to rely on young women as telephone operators, viewing them as more reliable and respectable than telegraph boys. An almost exclusively female workforce, telephone operators worked at switchboards hooking up callers with recipients. April Middlejans argues that advertising and popular culture represented operators in stereotypically gendered terms, describing them as tireless and cheerful “speech weavers” facilitating connections between people. Entering the profession in their late teens, operators tended to be middle-class, native-born (although often with immigrant parents), and educated. Telephone companies typically did not hire women of color or women who spoke English with an accent, as Kenneth Lipartito informs us. Operators received almost a year of training and probation, mastering the technical demands of the system while practicing a cheerful and calm telephone manner. 

New York Telephone, The Eleventh Hour (1914), Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, N-YHS

The Eleventh Hour (1914), a New York Telephone promotional booklet in the collection of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, similarly encourages the social use of the telephone, and promotes the work of telephone operators with its short illustrated story of how skilled telephone operators help a married couple organize a last-minute dinner party. Operators greeted prospective callers with “Number, please,” a practice meant to save time by avoiding extensive conversation. Women’s behavior on-duty was tightly scripted to convey competence and accuracy, even as they acted as the human element within a large technological system. 

United War Work Campaign poster (1918), Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, N-YHS

Women’s dominance in the industry led to their service with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I. Around 400 “Hello Girls”—63 from New York—were hired to operate the switchboards of the U.S. military telephone system in France, according to Jill Frahm, and as depicted in the war poster from the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. They made up just a handful of the approximately 25,000 American women who served their country abroad during the war. Although treated as part of the army, historian Lynn Dumenil reveals that the women were actually civilian contract workers, and thus not qualified to receive military benefits.

Here and Top: Harris & Ewing, Telephone Operators, ca. 1914, Library of Congress

During the 1918 flu pandemic, New Yorkers not only used the telephone to contact friends and family, but also to share key information: from notification of subway delays and labor strikes to public events like parades. During the epidemic, calls in the city spiked, averaging around 3,200,000 daily, reflecting both necessity (for instance, contacting doctors and hospitals) and a desire for communication amidst widespread social isolation. 

In October 1918, over 2,000 telephone operators—one-third of the workforce—were suffering from influenza, leading the New York Telephone Company to limit service from public telephone booths and hotels, while also cutting service by up to 15 percent across the city. Wartime jobs had also lowered unemployment rates, reducing the available pool of telephone operators. The months-long training process of operators meant these women could not be readily replaced, according to both Lipartito and Alice Kessler-Harris, the Chair of the CWH’s Scholarly Advisory Board.

A New York Times Magazine article around that time lamented that New Yorkers were tying up the lines in the midst of the pandemic, blaming the public’s new habit of using the telephone to keep up with friends and family throughout the day. Historian Richard John notes that this was an abrupt about-face: just a few years earlier, New York Telephone had run ads encouraging women to use the telephone to avoid isolation at home.

The Sun, November 18, 1918.

In November 1918, the New York Telephone Company published a “thank you” to New Yorkers for their discretion in placing calls and reserving the phone lines for “necessary calls.” Other telephone companies nationwide ran similar advertisements, showing the movement of the telephone into the category of essential service. By 1920, the U.S. held the largest federation of telephone exchanges in the world.

Starting in the 1920s, U.S. telephone companies would slowly begin to move towards mechanical switches, limiting the reliance on this corps of workers until they were phased out of operation by the 1980s. But in 1918, the spread of influenza among telephone operators revealed just how essential their work was in an ailing city. 

Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History