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August 10, 2022

The Voice With a Smile: Vintage Bell Telephone System Ads Featuring Operators From Between the 1930s and 1950s

For much of the 20th century, women played an important role in telecommunications system of the United States. As telephone operators, they helped customers make long distance calls, provided information, and made sure the whole system worked smoothly. Although remembered primarily as a female profession, the first telephone operators who worked for the Bell Telephone Company (later known as American Telephone and Telegraph Company or AT&T) in the 1870s were teenage boys. Unfortunately the boys frequently proved rude and unruly, so young women, believed to be naturally more polite, were hired instead.

“The voice with a smile” was the familiar AT&T slogan used from the 1930s through the 1950s . The ads visualized the cheerful sound of the company’s female operators painting a pretty face on the happy voice of the phone worker. The speech of operators was firmly regulated through strict codes of appropriate responses enforced by supervisors listening unannounced on operators line.

From the beginning,  the occupation of switchboard operators was almost exclusively female. Women were valued not only because of their gentle voice, and nimble fingers , but as an added bonus, they worked for lower wages. From the 1930s through the 1950s AT&T recruited female employees through popular women’s magazines such as American Girl, Senior Prom and True Story, appearing next to ads for weight loss, feminine itch relief and bust creams.

Ads emphasized how important women were to the telephone industry. “170,000 women are employed by the Bell system,” one ad stated. “More than half of the 315,000 employees of the Bell System are women. They are your friends and neighbors- living in the same section of the country. They average length of service is about ten years.”


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