Operators and Smooth Operators

Operators and Smooth Operators

| July 1, 2017



Today, phone calls are considered personal and secure. Chances are you carry a cell phone with voice mail, and you can expect to receive all your calls, important or not. Telephones had come into general use by the early 1900s but the calls, while personal, were seldom secure. Chances were good that others might be listening. Regardless of distance, every call required various operators to plug it into the wire to connect it. Though against the rules, any operator who connected the call could potentially eavesdrop. Operators were typically young, single women. In rural areas, they worked and often lived in small, one- or two-room buildings. A switchboard was on one wall, bed and washstand on another and a small stove for heat and to cook on a third.

Phones had no numbers or dials, simply a crank to turn that would generate a current. This current would ring the operator who took your request and connected your call. If you asked to speak to someone, the operator often knew which phone to ring in a town to find them, since few had home phones. A ring at 2 a.m. usually meant an emergency and her knowledge of a community’s residents might be a matter of life or death.

Traveling businessmen, needing to phone their offices and local customers, wanted to ensure the operator knew them and would see their calls were received and made. To assure smooth business operations, many businessmen would make a point to visit the local phone operator as soon as they arrived in town. Taking flowers and candy to the young lady operator might help her remember their name and even from whom a call was expected. Occasionally, regular visits, flattery and gifts might give an operator an inflated sense of charm, beauty and self-worth. Can you now better appreciate comedian Lily Tomlin’s Laugh-In character, phone operator Ernestine?

Of course, abuse of people’s privacy was as simple as plugging into a switchboard. A businessman might charm an operator to the point that she would disclose his competitors’ conversations. A single girl, alone, bored and subject to phone calls all night, might also be a potential late-night rendezvous; everybody knew her number. Fifty years would pass before operators, party lines and other casual eavesdropping potential disappeared from our telephones. Now, after another 50 years, we hear allegations that millions of our phone calls may be recorded by the NSA. I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.

If you would like to see one of these old hand-crank phones or learn more about Cypress, Texas, or American history, visit Commissioner Steve Radack’s Cypress Top Historic Park at 26026 Hempstead Highway. Contact it at cypresstop@pct3.com or 281-357-5324. The Cypress Historical Society is in the California Poppy yellow train depot replica in the back of the park. The Society has genealogy and historical information for the greater Cypress area. Contact it at cypresshistsociety@att.net or 281-758-0083. If you have questions or comments about this article please contact Fred Collins at fcndc@juno.com. l

Historical facts courtesy of Cypress Top Historic Park Collection & Cypress Historical Society: Preserving Cypress History for Posterity.


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Category: History

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