Fort Worth’s first telephone operators were high tech workers
Today’s tech workers have plenty of equipment on their sites: massage therapists, fitness centers, and catered meals. The telephonists, the technicians of yesterday who were almost all young single women, themselves had a fairly good position.
Trained to greet people on the other end of the phone with a melodic “hello” and “number please” (hence their nickname “hello” girls), the operators not only connected the calls, but also served as an emergency notification service for situations like a broken gas line and answered questions on everything from baseball scores to election results.
Male operators were originally switchboard operators, but they quickly gained a reputation for being rude and quarreling with the public and with each other. In Fort Worth, Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone only hired operators aged 16 to 28. Eighth grade education was required, but a high school diploma was preferable. Candidates had to be at least 5ft 5in in order to be able to reach the highest parts of the standard and speak without a strong accent that might make them difficult to understand.
After four weeks of training, the operators worked an eight-hour day divided into two shifts one hour apart. Each shift was interrupted by a 15-minute break. During these breaks, operators could eat inexpensively at the exchange cafe or relax in the “roof garden which offers a beautiful view of the city and cool breezes”.
They also had a “regulatory hospital-style emergency room,” ice water fountains, and a dance floor in the washrooms. A 1913 photograph shows a group of operators posed during a break on the rooftop garden of the Rosedale Exchange building. A few of the women read the latest edition of Southwestern Telephone News, while others are embroidering, resting or taking in the view. A woman on the porch swing has her personal helmet (sterilized weekly) around her neck.
The Rosedale Exchange building, which still stands on the northeast corner of Rosedale and Jennings today, was the city’s first telephone installation on the south side. Construction began in 1909 and the building became operational on January 1, 1911, with 30 operators working on the third floor.
South side phone numbers processed by the exchange were assigned an ROsedale prefix (the capital R and O served as the exchange abbreviation) or the prefix “76”. The other floors contained a battery room to power equipment, “main frame” equipment, training classrooms, and books listing all subscribers and the location of each wire in the system.
Fort Worth telephone service began in 1882, with a few telephones. In 1910 there were 9,621 telephones, a number that rose to 15,658 in 1915, with 78 operators at the Rosedale Exchange.
Southwestern Bell, as the company became known in 1920, left the building around 1933, a movement spurred not only by advances in telephone equipment, but also by the financial impact of the Great Depression.
Sold in 1939, the building remained empty until the end of World War II, when it was converted into apartments, and the roof garden was filled in to create another living space. It has served as an office building since the early 1980s – without the amenities the “hello” girls enjoyed.
Carol Roark is an archivist, historian and author with a particular interest in the history of architecture and photography who has written several books on the history of Fort Worth.