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
|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.
|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.
| 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.
|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.
|Aunt Betty and me Christmas 2009|
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