What Number, Please?

There is an object in the History Center’s permanent exhibits that you probably don’t associate with women’s history. It sits alone, with holes cut out so you can admire and wonder at its tangle of wires. Of course, I am talking about the telephone switchboard on display on the second floor. The switchboard represents not just a bygone era, but also what once served as a community hub and a gateway into new employment for women.

Switchboard1

Switchboards were a part of the telephone industry from its earliest days through the 1960s and beyond (and don’t forget the private exchanges used by businesses and other institutions). Without the technology for automatic connections, calls had to be manually connected. If you were on a party line, then you could call directly to other numbers on that line, but calls to a number on a separate line, or to an out-of-town number, required a person to physically make the connection via the switchboard.

The original switchboard operators of the late 19th century were teenage boys, which sort of makes sense, as this would have been the group that carried messages, on foot or on bikes, across towns and cities. Losing their jobs to this new industry, they were the logical choice to become switchboard operators. Alas, being teenage boys, so the story goes, they played pranks on each other and on customers and were reputed to be quite rude. Therefore, the telephone companies fired the boys and got women – polite, compliant, gracious, well-spoken women – to fill these positions instead. And while this was probably true, the underlying reason for switching to women had to be an economic one: women could be paid one-fourth to one-half of what men would have been paid. If you needed cheap, polite labor, then of course, you’d hire women, and really not think twice about it.

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Crossword Puzzles and Newspapers

While I was researching Valentine’s Day in Bloomington, it was fun to discover the crossword puzzles in Bloomington’s The Evening World. Given the Bloomington connection to The New York Times crossword, I thought it would be worth taking a little closer look at their history.[1]

I had picked the newspaper in 1925, and I was surprised to see the crossword puzzle was already a regular feature, running daily.  Crossword puzzles were introduced a decade earlier, but by the mid-1920s, crossword puzzles had become extremely popular.  Touting their popularity, The Evening World published an article on February 3, 1925 stating “Cross-word puzzles have captivated and possessed New York completely.” Urging its readers to give them a try, the newspaper went on to say that puzzle solvers would gain an “augmented vocabulary,” as well as it being great “brain exercise.” Ironically, while one of our local papers was pushing the puzzles by saying that they had become a craze in the big city, The New York Times had, the year before, called crossword puzzles a “primitive sort of mental exercise” and a “waste of time.”

And while for many of us it is synonymous with crossword puzzles, The New York Times was the last metropolitan newspaper to begin running a crossword puzzle as a regular feature, starting in 1942. They began with a Sunday puzzle, adding a daily one in 1950.

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