Hanging on the Line

From time to time, we will be posting random finds or donations that provide a little bit of insight on the lives Hannibalians used to lead. This picture is part of a folder we received out of the blue from Karen Lucas (Thank you!)

Welcome to the nerve center of the town's telephone system, circa 1913, at the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company on 818 Broadway. According to the back of the photo, Ms. Lucas' maternal grandmother - Ada Mason - is the fourth operator from the left:

(Note the number of operators needed for the long-distance and local calls!)

For those too young to remember, switchboard operators were necessary to manually 'patch' a caller to the desired recipient. Not that telephones had become standard in every household; by 1913, a promotional pamphlet on the history of Hannibal's telephone system boasts of servicing over 2700 people (in a community of roughly 18,000!) The town can boast of being (technically) the first community in Missouri to have a telephone system, though it was in a virtual tie with St. Louis for the honor in 1879. At first, the system had a whopping 25 subscribers, with 3-5 subscribers assigned to share a given line, a practice still found in some rural areas of Missouri into the 1980s. By 1882, the list of patrons had grown:

At the switchboard, the operator originally received an electronic signal that would ring a bell at the desk, while a flag-like structure would vibrate, instructing which line to pull. Next, the operator would reconnect the line with the number that was requested - the first phones did not have a rotary dial system, so handle cranks at the phone receiver were the signals used. Yes, it was a human-dependent system for years; incidentally, the first few phone lines were run through the town without poles, instead being connected across the tops of buildings.

By 1913, a job once assigned to boys had been largely occupied by women: a quick Google of the term "Telephone Girl" will show how ubiquitous a symbol the phone operator had become in American society, even becoming the topic of several films, a Broadway musical, and several other writings. This anonymous poem had made the rounds for a few years by the time it was typed on this stationary from Al S. Schorr's City Brewery:

The Telephone Girl (original, in slightly different order than above:)

The telephone girl sits in her chair,
And listens to voices from everywhere,
She knows who is happy and who has the blues;
She knows all the gossip, she knows all the news;
She knows our sorrows, she knows our joy;
She knows the girls who are playing with toys;
She knows every time we are out with the boys.,
She knows the excuse, each fellow employs;
She knows our trouble, she knows our strife;
She knows the man, who is mean to his wife.
If the telephone girl should tell all she knows,
It would turn our friends into bitterest foes.
She could sow a wind that would soon be a gale,
Engulf us in trouble and land us in jail
She could get our churches mixed in a fight,
She could start a story which gaining in force,
Would cause many wives to sue for divorce;
She could turn our day into sorrowing night.
In fact she could keep the town in a stew,
If she told one-tenth of the things she knew.
Gee! Doesn’t it make your head just whirl,
When you think what you owe to the telephone girl.

We are always looking for items and information to add to our digital archive; if you have a 'window into the past' you'd like to share, please contact us at info@hannibalhistorymuseum.com.

-Ken Marks