Home Business and Labor Emma Nutt, The World’s 1st Woman Telephone Operator

Emma Nutt, The World’s 1st Woman Telephone Operator

She loved the job, too

by
9 comments

When Emma Nutt reported for work at the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company in Boston on Sept. 1, 1878, she became the world’s first woman telephone operator.

Emma Nutt

Emma Nutt

Hours later, her sister Stella became the world’s second female telephone operator.

Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the first practical telephone, hired Emma away from a telegraph office. She earned $10 per month for a 54-hour workweek, though she did get an hour for lunch. She supposedly remembered every number in the New England Telephone Company directory.

Teenage boys worked as telephone operators – after all, they’d worked as telegraph operators from the beginning. But they didn’t do well actually talking to real people. They were impatient, they liked to play jokes and they swore. Customers complained they spoke too gruffly to them.

Emma Nutt

Emma Nutt, on the other hand, had patience and a cultured, soothing voice. Her success led women to rapidly replace boys as operators.

By the end of the 1880s, nearly all telephone operators were women.

To get a job as an operator, women had to be unmarried and between 17 and 26. They had to be tall enough to reach to top of the telephone switchboard. African American and Jewish women couldn’t get jobs as operators.

Emma and Stella Nutt, 1878

Emma and Stella Nutt working beside boys, 1878

Emma loved her job and stayed at it for at least 33 (possibly 37) years. Her sister left after a few years to get married.

By the time Emma retired, the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company consolidated with other small exchanges into the New England Telephone & Telegraph Company. Its service connected the nation.

Women telephone operators.

Strikes

By the early 1900s, the phone companies ramped up the pressure on the operators.

They forced the women to work two shifts in one day separated by an unpaid, three-hour break. The operators worked under strict discipline at an intense pace while sitting in straight-backed chairs. Supervisors watched them closely, punishing minor mistakes with detention.

When World War I broke out, the telephone operators took advantage of the resulting labor shortage. They went on strike for higher wages and better hours — and they won. After the war, employers tried to take back those gains.

At 7 a.m. on April 15, 1919, New England’s night shift operators walked off the job. That began a five-state telephone operator strike in New England. It involved thousands of women with strong community support. Five days later, management acquiesced, granting wage increases and union recognition.

In an unintended consequence of their victory, the telephone company then decided to stop relying so much on human operators. Soon, it introduced the automatic dial phone, which didn’t require an operator for a local call.

This story was updated in 2023.

9 comments

Debbie Ewing Lyons September 1, 2014 - 2:41 pm

Way before her times.

Hold Please: George Coy Launched the First Commercial Telephone Exchange - New England Historical Society January 28, 2015 - 8:35 am

[…] was capable of handling 64 customers. However, only two calls could take place simultaneously and the operator had to use six switches to put a call […]

Do you have what it takes to be a 1920s telephone operator? | A Smile And A Gun May 17, 2016 - 3:25 pm

[…] when Emma Nutt came to Boston’s Telephone Dispatch Company with her soothing voice in 1878, her employers soon saw her as a godsend. Not only did she “supposedly remembe[r] […]

WHAT CAN I SAY? IT’S EMMA NUTT DAY! « The Observation Post September 1, 2017 - 10:08 am

[…] Emma Nutt, The World’s 1st Woman Telephone Operator […]

Meet Emma Nutt, Primitive Telephone Industry's Original 'Siri' September 6, 2017 - 1:05 pm

[…] to the New England Historical Society, the first woman on the job was one by the name of Emma Nutt, who was hired by Alexander Graham […]

The Dover Mill Girls Walk Out in America’s 1st Women’s Strike - New England Historical Society September 26, 2017 - 9:57 am

[…] Though the strike failed, women like Harriet Hanson Robinson and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn would lead many more: in Lowell and Lawrence, in Bridgeport, New Haven and throughout New England. […]

The first female telephone operators were hired in 1878 | Home - Flexi Wuu March 9, 2018 - 2:42 pm

[…] be to hire women to take on the role of telephone switchboard operators. The first woman hired was Emma Nutt who Bell discovered was already working at a telegraph office. Emma’s sister, Stella, was hired […]

The Tariffville Disaster Inspires the First Emergency Phone Call - New England Historical Society January 9, 2019 - 9:24 am

[…] “After Tarriffville, the telephone network spread like crabgrass,” he wrote. “By 1890 it was all over New England.” […]

20 Amazing Facts about EMMA NUTT, the First Female Phone Operator May 26, 2020 - 2:56 am

[…] Time, Emma Nutt Day Wikipedia, New England Historical Society, Funding […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!