The Star-Herald

Celebrating the first operator

Emma M. Nutt Day was marked on Sept. 1.  Who, you say, is Emma M. Nutt?  Emma was born in Perry, Maine in 1860.  On September 1, 1878, she became the world’s first female telephone operator, a field that soon became dominated by women. 

The invention of the telephone essentially opened a whole new field of “safe” employment for women.  The female was safely ensconced on the other end of a telephone receiver without any direct contact with customers.

In January of that year, the Boston Telephone Dispatch began hiring young men to serve as operators.  It was soon discovered that these young men did not have the — shall we say? — proper qualifications for the position.  It was found that the young men lacked patience and had other unacceptable behaviors.  Enter Emma with her soft-spoken, cultured voice epitomizing what the telephone company wanted for the professional operator.

Ms. Nutt was hired by Alexander Graham Bell and often worked 54-hour weeks for just $10 a month.  Her career spanned over three decades.

It can be argued that, like other day-to-day necessities like water, air, streets and electricity, we tend to take telephones for granted.  Historians and sociologists all agree that the telephone had a profound impact on the economy and life in general.  This is especially true in a rural setting.  

It revolutionized many industries including hotels who no longer had to employ message boys to run messages to rooms and retail businesses allowing orders to be phoned in from a great distance.  From a social aspect, rural farms now had a direct connection to medical services, fire fighting assistance, and social conversations.  With the isolation of farms due to their size here in northern Maine, there had been a high rate of depression amongst farm wives.  The availability of the telephone helped turn this statistic around.  

The telephone was also very important from a psychological perspective as humans crave the sound of other people’s voices and it adds to a sense of security.  

It is safe to say that the telephone touched almost all aspects of life – economic, political, travel, psychological, behavioral (how often does a clerk answer the ringing telephone over dealing with the customer in front of them).

Of course, many young people today have no memory of party lines, telephone operators, telephone switchboards or rotary dials.  So how best to celebrate Emma M. Nutt?  Visit Presque Isle Historical Society’s Maysville Museum located at 165 Caribou Road.  The museum has a restored working telephone switchboard that was in service right here in Presque Isle.  

The museum is free and is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. provided a volunteer is available that day.  

Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.

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