Standing next to the Capitol switchboard, chief operator Harriott Daley broke into a smile. Her deep blue eyes twinkled as she considered the row of operators perched on stools and the humming wires that connected the country’s most important phone calls. “She must have a lot of interesting recollections,” a Washington Post reporter mused, “since she is in the top telephone spot in the Nation.”
The switchboard connected the calls of Representatives, Senators, Presidents, and staff. When Mrs. Daley became the first Capitol switchboard operator in 1898, she handled fewer than 200 calls per day. Though she was a widow with a toddler, when Congress was in session, her schedule was demanding: She worked from eight to six, switched on an answering service during her hour break for supper, and then returned to work until as late as midnight. As more Members used the phone, the switchboard staff grew. Mostly women, they were nicknamed “hello girls,” and handled around 30,000 calls daily. This technology was one way for Members to interact with constituents.
Operators had to be knowledgeable, efficient, and friendly—but most of all, trustworthy. Members discussed politics, deals, money, and love, all over the phone line. A “Positively No Admittance” sign warned away inquisitive stragglers from telephone headquarters. “If the President and a senator with a secret were at opposite ends of a telephone wire and you, the ‘central,’ were in between with a receiver clamped over your ears, would you be tempted to listen a bit and tell?” the Indianapolis Star asked. “Maybe you would, but if you were on the switchboard at the Capitol of the United States, where meet the wires leading to the offices of legislators and the White House, you wouldn’t.”
However, in 1916, an eavesdropping scandal exploded. Democratic Representative Matthew Neely of West Virginia used the telephone to discuss an impeachment hearing before the Judiciary Committee. After details of the conversation were published in a newspaper, Neely objected that the operator had been a “Republican spy.” Despite protesting that “I haven’t eavesdropped [on] anybody,” the male operator was quickly dismissed, and the switchboard regained its reputation for confidentiality.
In addition to the danger of eavesdropping, the “hello girls” faced other challenges. Similar congressional names caused confusion. When a constituent called the switchboard in 1913, asking to be connected to “Smith’s office,” the operator had to figure out which one of the twelve Representative and Senator Smiths was desired. Sometimes, “a member occasionally picks up the phone and says, ‘Give me my office.’ Then he remembers, or is reminded, that he hasn’t told us who is talking,” Mrs. Daley recounted. “The average Capitol operator, however, is familiar with the voices of many members of both houses and recognizes them immediately.” Occasionally, highly unexpected questions crossed the wire: In 1947, a caller rang Main 3120, the switchboard exchange, told the Capitol operator that a man’s wooden leg was ready for delivery, and asked to be connected. But after looking over the telephone directory and payroll, the operator determined that the man did not actually work at the Capitol—so his leg remained undelivered.
In the late 1950s, a new phone system allowed callers to dial numbers directly, rather than ringing the already-overworked switchboard. The dial board met with immediate criticism from Congress. Dialing numbers, Representative Edith Nourse Rogers explained, is “very time-consuming, unsatisfactory, and a perfect waste of our time.” To some Members, the switchboard operator was distinctly preferable to the distance of technology. Even the operators had some regrets about the shift from voice to dial. Clare Mann, chief switchboard operator at the time, realized sadly that she would miss the sound of Members’ voices. “I wouldn’t know a lot of them by sight,” she explained, but “I know who they are the minute they start to speak.”
Sources: The Indianapolis Star, November 9, 1913; Baltimore Sun, February 9, 1916; Washington Post, January 31, 1926; and the Washington Post and Times Herald, January 3, 1958.Follow @USHouseHistory