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May 29, 2018

Helen of Many Glacier Hotel – Portrait of a Female Indian Telephone Switchboard Operator in 1925

Telephone operators worked at hotels as well as at exchanges. Photographed here is Helen (last name unknown), an operator at Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park in 1925.

(Photo: Library of Congress)

At the time, park concessionaires often required their Blackfeet employees–including bus drivers and telephone operators—to dress in “traditional” clothing to appeal to eastern tourists.

Although female telephone operators may have been recognized for their abilities, they often worked long hours for very low pay. For example, in 1907 Rocky Mountain Bell operators’ wages were frequently as low as thirty to forty dollars per month for a ten- to twelve-hour day. That year, Butte operators struck for higher wages and an eight-hour day, and the company, in recognition of their united strength, almost immediate agreed to a minimum wage of fifty dollars per month, an eight-hour day, and a closed shop. That same year, the legislature enacted a law banning the employment of girls under the age of sixteen as telephone operators and in 1909 limited the hours of telephone operators to nine hours per day in cities and towns of more than three thousand people, except under special circumstances of illness or emergency.

Dorothy Johnson worked as an operator in Whitefish starting in 1919. She described her experience:
The board was a vast expanse of eyes, with, at the base, a dozen or so pairs of plugs on cords for connecting and an equal number of keys for talking, listening, and ringing. On a busy day these cords were woven across the board in a constantly changing, confusing pattern; half the people using telephones were convinced that Central was incompetent or hated them, and Central—flipping plugs into holes, ringing numbers, trying to remember whether 44 wanted 170-K or 170-L, because if she went back and asked him, he’d be sure she was stupid—was close to hysterics. It was every operator’s dream that when her ship came in she would open all the keys on a busy board, yell “To hell with you,” pull all the plugs, and march out in triumph, leaving everything in total chaos. Nobody ever did. We felt an awful responsibility toward our little corner of the world. We really helped keep it running, one girl at a time all by herself at the board.



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