My critique partner Elizabeth Montrose perfectly summed up the first Letter to Charlie from Dora in a Tweet:
I agree with her assessment. The tone of that first letter certainly leans toward stalker-ish and continues into this next one, written ten months after the first. Charles is now sixteen, Dora twenty-four. I wonder… were the letters in between lost? Or did Dora stop writing for a bit?
The mind games from the first letter–Charles sending Dora other girls’ letters, and Dora hinting at things she wanted to say but didn’t–continue in letter number two, but we’ll get to that drama in a minute.
Let’s first learn more about the job of the operator. I don’t know about you, but I found the fact of a teenaged boy being a telephone operator really interesting, so I did a bit of research and found this from an August 2017 History Channel article:
Telephone Operators Used to be Rude Teenage Boys
I don’t know what the founder of the Telephone Despatch Company, Edward Holmes, was thinking when he hired teenaged boys for the job. Yes, they’d been operating the telegraph machines, but they didn’t have to talk to people. Just run the machines. Regardless of era, boys that age have never been known for being well-mannered or present themselves with decorum. Well, Mr. Holmes’ choice of staff turned out to be a bad one, surprise surprise. The more boys in the room, the more the roughhousing and profanity accelerated, and the more the customers started to complain.
From Your Call is (Not That) Important to Us, by Emily Yellin:
“Apparently during the waits… (to connect calls)… the boys also had wrestling matches, threw spit wads, played practical jokes on customers, and some even drank beer. The various local phone companies had a hard time reeling in their wild operators.”
In 1878, Alexander Graham Bell put a stop to their shenanigans by hiring the first woman operator, Emma Nutt.
With her employment, the profession shifted away from boys to women–although not entirely considering Charlie was an operator after the turn of the century. Maybe he was more polite.
The “Hello Girls”
Women not only had a more pleasant manner, and didn’t talk back to their customers, they were cheaper to employ–yes, even cheaper than the teenage boys. Women flocked to the profession, finding it more dignified than working in a factory or domestic service, but the jobs weren’t easy to come by. With so many women applying, the companies were very selective. In addition to being pleasant, they had to dress prim and proper, and have impeccable elocution. They also had to be unmarried, between eighteen and twenty-six. If they married, they were let go.
Imagine working twelve hours a day, six days a week for around 10 dollars a month and saying over a hundred times a day, “Number pleeeyazz?” (They were instructed to draw out certain words since the lines were noisy.)
There were also physical requirements of the job. From the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities:
“Merely to get the job, a woman had to pass height, weight, and arm length tests to ensure that she could work in the tight quarters afforded switchboard operators. Operators had to sit with perfect posture for long hours in straight-backed chairs. They were not permitted to communicate with each other. They were to respond quickly, efficiently, and patiently — even when dealing with the most irascible customers.”
The operators had an intimate perspective on their community, though, since they had complete control of the call, including the ability to listen in on private conversations, which is what I’m guessing Dora is referring to when she describes a call in this letter.
Notes about the Letter
The Burns mentioned is Dr and Mrs. Eastman’s son. Carrie is a fellow operator with Charles in Bradford. I’m not sure who Mr. Arthur is. Newbury and Warren are other telephone exchanges.
And without further ado:
June 21, 1908
My dear Charles,
How do you do these days? I think you were taking quite a vacation for you, but I guess you will come back before long won’t you?
I have had a lovely ride with the Dr. this afternoon. He ran just fast enough so that one could take a little pleasure, but last Wednesday I went to No. Haverkill and back over Briarhill and he went something fierce. It made me so nervous that I wasn’t good for anything for two days. I guess that was the cause of my unsatisfactory work Wednesday eve.
Thanks ever so much for the postcard you sent, it was fine.
Burns is home now and we expect Allie the last of the week. The Dr and Mrs. Eastman are going to see Allie graduate. They will go Tuesday and back Wednesday night or Thursday morning. I guess they will leave all the children at home this time.
Are you and Mr. Arthur finding out all you want to from one another? He says that he don’t believe only about half what you tell him, but everything that he has told me has come very near being the truth. He is very anxious to know about May 26, but I won’t tell. You can if you want to.
Please dear, don’t feel offended because I spoke about your name being Ed because really I didn’t mean anything I just wanted to see what you would say.
About quarter past eight tonight somebody rang one long about ten or a dozen times and it wasn’t Newbury or Warren. I sat here and as usual, I put my connection on and I knew where it was. He said once after he had rang a few times “I wish you would get off this line I want my party.” I wish I had answered him and found out who he wanted.
How is Carrie nowadays? I haven’t heard from her since she left the office.
I had quite a visit with my friend after she came back from Bradford. She called me up and I was awful good I only asked her one question about you which she answered, but not very satisfactory, for I don’t believe it. I am going to carry my hat down Tuesday and if she is alone I will ask her something else that is if you are willing.
You see I haven’t told you such news as you would like to hear but only nonsense, but you will excuse me this time I know. You will write me won’t you dear? When you can for I should be so glad to hear from you, for you are not forgotten by me.
I wonder what the heck happened on May 26?? It’s maddening not having both sides of the conversation. Dora’s desperate need to get more information about Charles certainly borders on stalkerish (okay, a lot stalkerish), but I feel bad for her. She seems lonely, don’t you think?
I hope Charlie is kind to her. And that she’d not completely out of her mind. Curious to hear your thoughts as well. If you have something to add, by all means, comment below.
Until next time…
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