The year 1952 was a very important year for Donna Brown. This was the year that she began working at a telephone company in Joplin– one of the many favorite jobs that she did during her life.
“There was no interview in order to get the job,” Donna said. “All you had to do was sit down and show that you were able to reach certain lengths in order to work the switchboard.”
The “switchboard” was a device used to manually connect a group of telephones. The switchboard had rows of “jacks” (which served for each subscriber). In the area in front of the switchboard there were several columns of keys, lamps, and cords (front and rear).
Each column had a front key and rear key. The rear key was used to physically ring the telephone and, on newer models, used to collect the money from coin telephones. The front key was used by the operator to talk to the person on that particular cord.
When a call is received, a light glows to alert the operator. The operator takes the rear cord and plugs it into the corresponding jack. The operator then presses the front key and asks who the caller would like to speak to. After the caller replies, the operator takes the front cord and plugs it into the jack that belongs to the person the caller wishes to contact. Then, the operator presses the rear key and rings the phone until the other person answers.
Once the other person answers, the operator will begin timing the call and then move on with other calls. The length of time the callers converse determined the cost of the call. When the “supervision lamps” lit up, that meant that the callers were done.
Donna Brown got the job and soon began working. Her task was to connect people to other callers. When someone picked up a telephone, a light would appear on an operator’s switchboard. Donna would answer and ask what number the caller wanted. From there, she would take one cord and plug it into the slot for that particular number. Then, she would press a button that would ring the phone until someone answered. After the person receiving the call accepted it, Donna would begin to time how long the two people talked so that she could charge them properly.
Long distance calls (which usually cost about fifty cents for every 3 minutes) were much more complicated. In order to make a long distance call for a caller (say from Joplin to New York City), you had to call a number of different stations in order to get to the place you wanted to contact. For example, to make a long distance call from Joplin to New York City you’d call St. Louis, from there, the operator would connect you to Chicago or New Jersey and that operator would then connect you to New York.
“To get to a large city you usually had to go through about four stations; to get to a small city, you had to go through six or seven stations.” This was especially frustrating, because if someone disconnected you along the way, you had to start all over again, or some people could not pronounce the names of some small towns properly, making it extremely difficult.
Operators also had another difficult job. There was no way to tell how much money a person put into a payphone, so operators had to memorize the sounds that coins made in order to tell what the caller put in. “The coins sounded different,” Donna said. “The quarter was a very high pitched sound, the dime made two sounds, and the nickel was almost like a thud. You couldn’t pay with pennies. Emergency calls were the only free calls.”
Operators’ hours varied too. Because anyone could make a call at anytime of the day, operators had shifts. “There was a split-shift, which was 7 A.M. to 11 A.M. and then 4 P.M. to 8 P.M. There was also the straight shift that was 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. or 1 P.M. to 10 P.M. and the midnight shift that was from 12 midnight to 7 A.M..” The days that the telephone company received the most calls were Mother’s Day and then Christmas.
Donna quit working at Southwestern Bell Telephone in 1959 after she married. She had worked seven years there and said she thoroughly enjoyed the job and the friends that she made.