Operator. May I help you?: Bell Canada's 125 Years
Readiness to Serve
1917, 20th century
Bell Canada Historical Collection
This artefact belongs to: © Bell Canada
Keys to History
Operators, or "The Voice with a Smile"
To subscribers, operators personify both the telephone company and service. While telegraphic service requiring a certain amount of technical knowledge was provided by young men, operating telephones was defined as women's work. Why did companies prefer women operators? A number of reasons were advanced - "clear speaking voice," "courtesy," "patience" and "visual acuity." In short, the work required qualities and abilities that telephone executives considered to be unique to women. Many working-class women were hired as telephone operators. For them it was a step up on the social ladder.
The work of a telephone operator was very demanding. Operators not only had to concentrate and be polite at all times, they also had to wear a heavy headset, do repetitive movements and repeat phrases learned by heart all day long, and work at a frantic pace at the busiest times.
Prior to the invention of the rotary dial telephone, all calls had to be placed by an operator. Even with the advent of automatic switches, operators remained essential for long-distance calls. This public service ad reminds people to be courteous on the telephone.
Advertisements were carried in all the newspapers of the period, which were the main mass medium before the advent of radio.
Between 1880 and the 1920s, operators played a crucial role in making local telephone calls. In 1907, 400 Toronto operators went on strike for better working conditions.
The telephone companies preferred to hire unmarried young women. In 1907, in Toronto, they were paid $25 a month for a six-day, 48-hour workweek.