A career at the switchboard: Rose Thompson, telephone operator

February 11th, 2020

A box covered with little holes, cords zig-zagging all over the place, connecting and disconnecting to jacks, speaking politely to clients all day long.  This was the work of the telephone operator in the time before dialing a series of numbers connects you almost immediately to whomever you wish to reach.  Once long distance calls were made possible through technology and businesses and homes were increasingly connecting to the telephone network, switchboards operated by humans were necessary for calls to reach their destination.

At first, switchboards were operated by young men but it was found that women tended to be politer to customers and it was not long before it became a female-dominated job. This new industry gave women an opportunity for some economic independence and work outside of the home.  Although telephone operator work typically fell to young, single women, it became a life-long career for others, such as Rose (née Robinson) Thompson in Ayer’s Cliff.

It was uncommon for mothers in the early 1900s to have jobs outside of the home but for Rose Thompson, a widow, telephone operator work gave her a chance to support herself and her young son, Lysle.  Following the sudden death of her husband, Cortez J. Thompson, in 1916, she moved from Cassville where they had farmed to Ayer’s Cliff.  In 1919, Rose began to work at the switchboard of the Ayer’s Cliff exchange of the Eastern Townships Telephone Company and became the office’s manager in 1923; a position she would continue to occupy for 30 years.

By the end of 1953, Bell Telephone had acquired the Eastern Townships Telephone Company and Rose chose to leave her career as Ayer’s Cliff’s telephone operator and office manager at this time.  At the E.T. Telephone Company’s final banquet in late 1953, of the twelve “telephone pioneers” (meaning the employee had over 21 years with the company) that were honoured, eight were women.

While the switch to the Bell Telephone network marked the end of an era for the locally-owned Eastern Townships Telephone Company, the manual switchboard would remain in place in Ayer’s Cliff and continue to be largely operated by local women until the spring of 1962.

Do you have local photographs of people at work at a switchboard or other memorabilia related to telephone offices and switchboards in the Townships?  If so and you would be interested in donating them to the ETRC, please get in touch with us!

Photo credit : P020 E.T. Heritage Foundation fonds, 79-22-4
Eastern Telephone Company employees Kay Lyon MacTurner, Gladys Dustin, Doris Mosher, and Rose Thompson at the Ayer’s Cliff exchange office, ca. 1930s
Photo credit : P177 Lake Massawippi Area Historical Society collection
Unidentified woman using a telephone, ca. 1910
Photo credit : P020 E.T. Heritage Foundation fonds, 79-22-6
Rose Thompson at the switchboard in Ayer’s Cliff, ca. 1930s
A career at the switchboard: Rose Thompson, telephone operator
February 11th, 2020
Jody Robinson