Friday, November 9, 2012

Sepia Saturday: Smooth Operator


Sepia Saturday challenges bloggers to share family history through old photographs.




This week’s Sepia Saturday photo prompt depicts a row of switchboard operators at work.  A scene like this was quite familiar to my aunt Beverly Ann Slade “Betty” Anderson.  Why? Because she was part of the legend of women who said “NY-un” (9) and “FY-vuh” (5) when speaking to telephone customers.

From the very first day on the job in 1952, Aunt Betty loved working at the “toll board” or “cord board,” as it was called, as an employee of Southern Bell in Burlington, North Carolina, and then later at C & P Telephone Company in Portsmouth, Virginia. 

C & P Telephone Company
High Street Portsmouth, VA
The telephone operators were on the third floor.
from Google Maps
C & P Telephone Office
The woman in the back is operating the
switchboard from which she connected
calls to the desks in the business office
of C & P Telephone Company.
photo courtesy of Beverly Anderson
























The basis of the job was quite simple:  just insert one or both cords to make the connection. But the challenge came when there was no direct connection.  The operators had to use a map to figure out a route and then call another phone center to serve as a link in a chain of connections. 

Telephone Company newspaper 1968
An article in the company newspaper 1968
shows male operators at the toll board
courtesy Betty Anderson
The job at the cord board took on a competitive edge when several calls came in at the same time requiring the same connections.  Operators would shout out the time their call came in.  It was a system of “first come - first served.”

Aunt Betty was not intimidated by supervisors (like the one in the prompt) who carefully watched and monitored every operator’s performance.  If the light came on, the operator had better answer in 30 seconds.  If a customer was on hold 60 seconds, the operator had better get back to the customer to say she is still trying to connect.  Lord help the operator if she was caught listening in on someone’s conversation.  Operators’ pay was directly tied to their good customer service.  

And the pay was good:  $20 a week.  An operator who worked a full day got two 15-minute breaks plus lunch.  Those who worked a split shift had a 15-minute break during each shift.  When Aunt Betty worked the split shift, typically 8:00-12:00 and 4:00-8:00, rather than go home, she opted to take advantage of the employees’ craft room where various workers took turns running craft classes.  Betty’s favorite was ceramics.

Beverly Anderson and antique switchboard
 In costume as part of some historical celebration,
Beverly Anderson is pictured here
 with an antique switchboard
 that was most likely used in an office.
photo courtesy of Beverly Anderson
With her record for good service and many awards for perfect attendance, it is no wonder that Aunt Betty advanced through the company.  (Yes, the phone company gave awards for perfect attendance.)  At various times she was an operator, a supervisor, a teller in the business office, and service manager handling either business customers or retail customers.



Beverly Anderson 1968
This photo of Aunt Betty
appeared in the company
newspaper  in 1968
when she was
featured for conducting
a training session on how
women can protect themselves
against crank callers.













When she retired, she had 50 people reporting to her.  Ever modest about her success at the phone company, Aunt Betty always insisted she was at the right place at the right time.  Sometimes she felt inadequate or even unworthy supervising people with far more education than she had.  But a strong work ethic and good common sense carried her far beyond her little stool at the cord board.


Beverly Anderson and Wendy Mathias
Aunt Betty and me Christmas 2009

If you want to connect with other smooth operators at Sepia Saturday, it's TOLL FREE.



49 comments:

  1. Great post Wendy! I never knew about the logistic talents that were required for this job. To reroute calls you really had to know your network I presume. I also believe today's call center staff could learn something from your Aunt Betty!

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    1. I had never really thought about the logistics of long distance calls. Calls to faraway places and even rural places must have presented a challenge.

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  2. What a fun post, Wendy! Both of my older sisters worked for local phone companies during the 1950s. My first job was working for the school district; one of my duties was to provide relief coverage for the operators on the district's phone system. It was there I learned to use a cord board!

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    1. Very cool! Your sisters and my aunt might have "connected" at some point.

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  3. This was an interesting post but I can't imagine doing this all day with patience and good humor and all for $20 a week! Also I would have a problem with just two 15 minute breaks a day since I seem to have to go the the ladies room about once a hour! Sounds like your aunt had an amazing and enjoyable career.

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    1. Maybe telephone operators didn't drink much in the morning. Surely there had to be allowances for a quick trip to the bathroom.

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  4. Aww, this is GREAT! I love Betty's 1968 picture. She is a beauty. Glad you posted about her career. She was/is a hard worker. We are lucky to have such good women in our family.

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    1. Yeah, I remember her looking like that.

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  5. How wonderful that you know so much about Betty's career. I'm sure I would have failed at that job by the end of the first day!

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  6. Fascinating post Wendy. When in the army there were times when I had to man a switchboard and I hated it as you had to know the rank of who was calling or being called. Fortunately it was only as a stand-in for a few minutes at a time.
    Now we get impatient with call centre staff - I'm sure Betty wouldn't like their service.

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    1. How would you know the rank? I hope you had a cheat-sheet.

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  7. A great profile of you aunt Betty and her career That is such a lovely photograph of her in 1968 - I well remember that hairstyle!

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    1. Yep, that hairstyle is fresh in my memory too.

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  8. Fascinating post. The job of 'switchboard operator', like 'secretary' disappeared from the job market a while ago.

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    1. And has been replaced with "telemarketer."

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  9. I long for the return of switchboard operators such as Betty as opposed to the recordings that we get now. And imagine, having someone get back to you in 60 seconds when now we wait several minutes to finally talk to a real person.
    Nancy

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    1. I know! Don't you just LOVE listening to the menu of options for which button to push? And the music?

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  10. Wendy,
    I LOVED this post. I remember my mother relating the stories but not in enough detail to include them in my post. I'll be adding a link to your post for those who want to learn more about life as a telephone operator.
    Thanks!

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  11. I enjoyed your story and description of the switchboard operation. You sure look a lot like your Aunt Betty!

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    1. Funny you should say that. When I was little and even into my teens, people always thought she was my mother.

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  12. Wendy, a beautiful post about your aunt Betty, a very competent lady; In the early times it must have been a very demanding job, the girls had to be quick and alert. Today the call centers are in India and the telephone exchange looks a "little" different!!

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    1. You are so right! What are the chances that the guy with the heavy accent is really named Stephen?

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  13. Nice post. My mother was a telephone operator in the 1940s. She sometimes connected those calls telling about soldier's injuries or deaths.

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    1. Oh, that couldn't have been easy.

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  14. Such a nice post about your Aunt Betty. I enjoyed the details and those great pictures of your aunt.

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  15. What a fascinating insight into the world of telephone operators. So full of detail - and fine old images.

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    1. Thanks Alan. Good to see you back after your vacation.

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  16. Wendy, loved the photos of your Aunt Betty! The switchboard operators were such an important part of the communication -- I keep forgetting that in this day of modern cells. And, I agree, you look just like her!

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    1. You are right. The essential work of so many companies is performed by the "little people."

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  17. I loved this, Wendy! Please tell Aunt Betty hello for me. My Aunt Signa Woods Hedrick was an operater, but until your post, I didnt know what all that encompassed. Sounds like a lot of multi tasking. And, those split shifts took up the whole day! How could you get anything done at home?

    That is nice about the craft classes though. Did Aunt Betty get a bunch of free phones in her house after she retired? Aunt Signa did.

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    1. My Aunt Betty is going to LOVE reading this and all the nice comments. I don't know if Betty got FREE phones, but she always had MORE phones than anyone I knew. Maybe she got an employee discount, I don't know. I took a picture of one really cute phone for this blog but couldn't work it into my story.

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  18. That telephone system takes multitasking to a new degree. She did well in her career, a great insight into jobs at that time. I love the idea of the craft classes on a split shift, they must have been a good company to work for.

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    1. Yes, Betty always loved her job and the varied benefits. The craft classes were a good idea. She could have just gone home, but that was a bus ride and she didn't want to spend the money.

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  19. Wendy, this was a great post! And the job at the switchboard sounds like it was quite demanding and fast-paced. I can't imagine having to wait for an already occupied connection while having a customer on the line. And hoping that those on the occupied connection weren't too long-winded! Talk about stressful!

    And yes, you do look a lot like your Aunt Betty!

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    1. And with that 60-second rule, waiting to make the connection was indeed stressful, especially if you were juggling other customers at the same time.

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  20. Another terrific story that fit the theme perfectly, Wendy. It's really nice when an occupational photo can introduce us to family history like your Aunt Betty. The phone company buildings always seem to have very few windows, something to do with climate control for the electronics I think. Must have made work there more cave-like.

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    1. I remember thinking as a kid that the C & P Building was soooo modern and beautiful. Hmmm.

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  21. Oh you certainly spin a lovely tale! Your Aunt Betty was a such a prize-she deserved so much more pay! Although back then it just might have been top dollar, right! I wonder if the younger crowd of today could handle that kind of telephone stress, certainly not now with all that they have today!

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    1. Yes, Betty thought $20 a week was GREAT.

      Today's younger crowd would have to do regular finger exercises to be able to DIAL on those old phones!

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  22. Good for Betty!!
    Your post reminded me of my mom,
    back in the days when she worked for Quebec Telephone.
    She loved that job but then,
    she got married and left her hometown...
    That was it for her,
    except for the endless hours she spent gossiping over the phone
    with her friends...
    ;)~
    HUGZ

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    1. I started to do my post about a family member who was a bit of a gossip, but my Aunt Betty found some suitable photos for me.

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  23. This is revealing about the happenings n that career that I never knew about, that the operators had to map a call, or compete for the lines. How lucky you had an operator with so much to share right in your family. And a perfect attendance award too? Who knew. Great story.

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    1. That Perfect Attendance award was an eye-opener for me too. What I love about Sepia Saturday is that it forces me to write about something I would never have thought of on my own.

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  24. I'm so happy to finally know the ins and outs if that cord board! I've seen that on the big and small screen and always wondered exactly how that worked.

    What a remarkable and accomplished woman your Aunt Betty is! I don't think I could have handled th pressure, especially with the supervisor pacing up and down on behind.

    Terrific post, Wendy!

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    1. I noticed that pesky supervisor in other Sepia posts this week too. I wonder if they were mean because they look as if they might smack a few hands. I think I'd rather be on that swivel stool than pacing back and forth on my feet all day.

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  25. Can you imagine the dreams these ladies had? Work related dreams where everything seemed to be going wrong? They would be so happy when they awoke. I know I have the occasional dream of doing work over and over again and things going wrong. With all those cards and such to deal with they must have felt like they were drowning in it.

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