Gaye LeBaron’s recent Press Democrat column (June 28, 2009) laments the demise of real, live, telephone operators and makes a case for the return of their switchboards, while waxing nostalgic: “Operator! Just speaking the word opens a floodgate of memories. ‘Operator, get me long distance, please. Yes, I’ll wait. Thank you.’ It conjures up images of sensible, dependable, friendly women in headsets, sitting at their switchboards, controlling the pulse of the community…” As always, LeBaron entertains us, too, with great anecdotes from operators about their careers of making connections.
The beginning of the end, she writes, came with the introduction of local direct dial service in the years after WWII.* Maybe it’s a quibble, but that was the last step of a process that started way back in 1905, when the Sunset telephone company first insisted that callers must provide the operator with someone’s assigned number instead of just a name or address. As written here earlier, it may seem a small thing today, but it was a bit of a milestone in the history of the way we use technology, being probably the first time that an individual (as opposed to a location or an institution) was associated with such an abstract thing as a series of numbers. Once the rotary dial telephone was available nationally in 1919, it was only a matter of time before every Central Office had the switching equipment to make local operators obsolete.
Her column also reminded me of a 1906 humor item about the befuddlements some faced when asked, “number, please.”
* Santa Rosa had the “LIberty” exchange (which we’ve always used on our Comstock House calling cards, to the confusion of nearly everyone), Sebastopol had VAlley to match its 82x numbers, and Sonoma had WEbster for its 93x prefix.
MIGGLES HAD A TIME WITH TELEPHONE CALL
Mr. Miggles was trying to call up a friend who lived in a suburban town, says the New Orleans Picayune. Mr. Miggles looked up the number, then got central.
“Hello,” he said. “Give me Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven.”
“Elmsdale? I’ll give you the long-distance.”
Long distance asked, “What is it?”
“What is your number?”
“I just told you. Elmsdale two-ought–“
“I mean your house number.”
“Sixty-five Blicken street.”
“Oh, that isn’t what I mean. Your phone number.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Asked Mr. Miggles, who is noted for his quick temper.
“I did. What is it?”
“Violet Park eight-seven-seven.”
“Violet Park eight-seven-seven?”
“And what number do you want?”
“What is your name?”
“My name is John Henry Miggles. I live at 65 Blicken street, Violet park; my house ‘phone is Violet Park eight-seven-seven, or eight-double-seven, as you choose; I am married; have no children; we keep a dog and a cat and a perpetual fern and a Boston fern and–“
“All that is unnecessary, sir. We merely–“
“And last summer we didn’t have a bit of luck with our roses. I tried to have a little garden, too, but the neighbors’ chickens got away with that; the house is green, with red gables; there is a cement walk from the street; I am 40 years old; my wife is younger, and looks it; we have a piano; keep a cook and an upstairs girl; had the front bedroom papered last week and I want to–“
“Did you want Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven?”
“Yes,” gasped Mr. Miggles.
“Well, the circuit is busy now. Please call again.”
But Mr. Miggles wrote a letter.– Santa Rosa Republican, August 20, 1906