Today’s tech workers have lots of amenities at their job sites: massage therapists, fitness centers and catered meals. Telephone operators, yesterday’s tech workers who were almost all young unmarried women, had a pretty good situation themselves.
Trained to greet those on the other end of the line with a melodious “hello” and “number please” (thus their nickname as “hello” girls), operators not only connected calls, but served as an emergency notification service for situations like a broken gas main and answered questions about everything from baseball scores to election results.
Male operators originally “manned” telephone switchboards, but quickly gained a reputation for being rude and squabbling with the public and one another. In Fort Worth, Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone hired only female operators between the age of 16 and 28. An eighth-grade education was required, but a high school diploma was preferred. Applicants had to be at least 5 feet 5 inches tall so they could reach the highest parts of the switchboard and had speak without a heavy accent that could make them hard to understand.
After four weeks of training, operators worked an eight-hour day broken into two shifts with an hour in between. Each shift was broken up by a 15-minute break. During these breaks operators could eat inexpensively at the exchange café or relax on the “roof garden that affords a fine view of the city and cool breezes.”
They also had a “regulation hospital style emergency room,” ice water fountains, and a dance floor in the restroom. A 1913 photograph shows a group of operators posed during a break on the Rosedale Exchange building’s roof garden. A few of the women are reading the latest edition of Southwestern Telephone News, while others embroider, rest, or take in the view. One woman on the porch swing has her personal headset (sterilized weekly) draped around her neck.
The Rosedale Exchange building, which still stands today at the northeast corner of Rosedale and Jennings, was the city’s first telephone facility on the south side. Construction started in 1909, and the building became operational on Jan. 1, 1911, with 30 operators working on the third floor.
South side phone numbers handled through the exchange were assigned a ROsedale (the capital R and O served as the exchange abbreviation) or “76” prefix. The other floors contained a battery room to power equipment, the “main frame” equipment, training classrooms, and books that listed all subscribers and the location of every wire in the system.
Fort Worth’s telephone service began in 1882, with a few phones. By 1910 there were 9,621 telephones, a number that swelled to 15,658 by 1915, with 78 operators at the Rosedale Exchange.
Southwestern Bell, as the company became known in 1920, left the building about 1933, a move spurred not only by advances in telephone equipment but by the financial impact of the Great Depression.
Sold in 1939, the building sat empty until the end of World War ll, when it was converted into apartments, and the roof garden was filled in to create another dwelling space. It has served as an office building since the early 1980s – without the amenities that the “hello” girls enjoyed.
Carol Roark is an archivist, historian, and author with a special interest in architectural and photographic history who has written several books on Fort Worth history.