Life as a Hello Girl

In 1910, the Joplin News-Herald ran a story about the advantages of working as a “Hello Girl.” The News-Herald remarked that while it might not be fun to “sit up to a switchboard and come in contact with the varying dispositions of several hundred people each day” there were “some things about the work of the central girl at the Home Telephone company’s office in this city that probably come to no other working girls in town.”

Hello Girls operating the telephone board

Hello Girls operating the telephone board

Despite hearing about “heartless corporations” the News-Herald assured readers that this was not the case with the Home Telephone Company located in a building on Joplin Street.  Since 1906, girls were treated to an on-site “culinary department and lunch rooms.” The News-Herald reporter, unable to curb their enthusiasm, gushed, “A lunch room and a kitchen in the telephone plant!” On “pleasant days” a light lunch was served, but when the weather turned bad, regular dinners were served that were, “equal to those of the best restaurants in town.” Girls were guaranteed a free lunch twice a day.

When the operators were at work on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays, the company served large dinners in the company dining room so that the girls could at least have a hot dinner during the holiday.  Empty stomachs and “improper food”, the company believed, could affect an employee’s disposition.  Lunches and holiday meals meant, “congenial employment, pleasant surroundings, and the saving of considerable money in the course of a year.”

Even more astonishing, at least at this time in history, was the fact that the company also had “baths, individual lockers, and a rest room, or sitting room” that was overseen by a “regularly employed matron.” Should a girl seem exhausted or ill, she would be sent to the rest room or home.  Mrs. R.L.Whitsel, the company’s matron, was hailed as, “experienced and efficient.”

A telephone operator circa 1911.

This unnamed telephone operator from 1911 is representative of telephone operators of the time.

If the weather was nasty, the company paid for closed carriages to pick up girls at their homes to bring them to the office.  Once their shift was over, a carriage would transport the girl safely back to her home.  The company’s management realized that “healthy, happy, and well cared for girls are more likely to be cheerful and pleasant to their patrons and more prompt in service than girls who are overworked and neglected.” Wet clothes were considered “hard on the disposition and health of the girls and the telephone company prefers to have its employees happy and cheerful, even if that means occasional bills for carriages.”

Given the number and types of jobs available in Joplin at the time, it appeared that if a young woman could secure a job as a Hello Girl, she found herself with a relatively comfortable means of income.  It also represented a time period when society felt that young women deserved an extra amount of protection from the theoretical evils of the business world, where vicious characters lurked to take advantage of young, innocent women.  Never the less, this legacy of care from the Victorian world seemed to offer some of the women of Joplin a safe and inviting place to work.

Source: Joplin News Herald, 1910

A Hello Girl Finds Love

Turn on your television and you’re likely to be bombarded by advertisements for EHarmony, Match.Com, and OKCupid.  Love can now be found on the Internet, but finding love with someone you cannot see over lines of communication is nothing new.  Here is one story that happened over the telephone line, many years ago.

Miss Lillian Imogene Chittenden, a Hello Girl for the Home Telephone Company just over the state line in Galena, Kansas, found love over the wires.  When Alexander Morford, the mining editor for the Joplin Globe, discovered that the Galena line was down, he panicked.  He had to find a way to transmit a story from Galena to Joplin as quickly as possible.  Through the introduction of a friend he met Lillian Chittenden who helped him successfully transmit his story on time.

From that time forward Morford “demonstrated a great interest in the telephone business.  As time progressed, Morford was promoted and transferred to the Globe’s Joplin offices.  It was said of Morford, “as long as the Galena-Joplin toll service continued in operation, he hadn’t talked himself out of range and the romance of the telephone and The Globe went steadily forward.”

The two married at the Christian Church of Galena, Kansas, in December 1905.  Their marriage lasted until Alexander Morford’s death on February 9, 1953, in Joplin, Missouri.

Source: Joplin Globe

Joplin’s Hello Girls

In 1905, Joplin residents who picked up the phone to place a call would have heard a cheerful “Hello Central!” Joplin’s “Hello Girls” were said to be a “combination of encyclopedia, dictionary, city directory, blue book, weather vane, atlas, human alarm clock, and bureau of information in general.” Altogether there were thirty-five young women who were responsible for directing calls in the city of Joplin. Twenty-two of the telephone operators were assigned to the main line and answered an estimated 16,000 calls per day.

The Bell Telephone Company of Joplin, Missouri

Some of Joplin's Hello Girls likely worked at the Bell Telephone Company's building.

One night operator on the Bell line of the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company spoke with a Joplin Globe reporter regarding an average work night. “Oh, they just ask everything,” the operator replied when asked what people asked when making a call. “So many people ring up to ask when the next street car goes to Carthage, or to Galena, and whether the East Joplin dinky is running today. Then there’s the trains. It would be folly for a central operator not to know the exact time of departure from and arrival of every train in Joplin, and if we don’t want to get our heads taken off by an information craving public, we’d better known just how late that Frisco from the west is tonight, and whether the Katy carries passengers on its local freight.”

It was also not uncommon for folks to pick up the phone to find out the time of day. The operator slyly remarked that she believed some folks did so just to save on the price of an office clock. Joplin residents also picked up the phone to find out where a fire was, often ringing up the operator to gasp, “Where’s the fire, Central?”

Although an operator might receive a dozens of calls on a night when the fire alarms rang incessantly, at least one operator did not mind the inquisitive phone calls, telling the Globe reporter, “We all sort of have a mutual interest in fires, and it’s a sort of human weakness, I’ll admit, to realize that we are very important for once in our little lives. It makes us sort of proud, you see, and we just answer away with might and main telling them all where the fire alarm came from.”

Other common questions the operators received were regarding the dates and times of church services, the location of specific mines, the meaning of words, the authors of books, and even “what the sign is when you dream you saw your fellow.”

Operators displayed patience with their customers, especially in the case of the elderly who were often hesitant to speak into a phone and would forget who they wanted to speak to, including one older lady who would call up and say, “Oh, I want to talk to a woman, she lives out on, oh, I forgot the street and I can’t think of her name. She’s a milliner.”

A telephone operator circa 1911.

This unnamed telephone operator from 1911 is representative of telephone operators of the time.

Besides patience, an encyclopedic knowledge of train schedules, businesses, and people, the other essential quality needed in a “Hello Girl” was youth. Acting Secretary H.E. Scovern of the Home Telephone Company told the reporter that, “It’s not altogether an easy thing to secure the desirable sort of operators. We have them here from fifteen years up, but the girl of seventeen makes the very best. She’s quick and alert and readily learns the run of the business and the professional men the line caters to. She must know them all, and there are something like 1,300 phones to keep in mind.” Scovern said a “Hello Girl” had the instinct of Sherlock Holmes and the cunning of an expert in the dead letter department at the Post Office. He praised one operator who, through her extensive memory and ability to analyze voices, could detect “fraudulent use of the toll board exchange” and despite the many “rag chewings and some unpleasantness” proved a “valuable guardian of the company’s interests.”


Sources: Library of Congress and the Joplin Globe.

Joplin, Phone Home

Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone in 1876.  Six years later, telephones were considered a rare luxury and this list reveals some of the wealthier citizens of Joplin, as well the most successful businesses.   Even with a population in the thousands and businesses in at least the dozens, only about 51 telephones are listed.  Times have changed.

Jopin Telephone Exchange list for 1882

Jopin Telephone Exchange List for 1882.

Source: Joplin Daily Herald