Women at Work: Switchboard Operators

Women at Work: Switchboard Operators

Somewhere in these two pictures is Carilyn Bernd's maternal grandmother, Delma Ragan. Delma was born in 1902. She married Leo Ragan in 1922 and gave birth to twins in 1924. Just three years later, she died at age 25. At some point, Delma was a telephone switchboard operator...

Somewhere in these two pictures is Carilyn Bernd’s maternal grandmother, Delma Ragan. Delma was born in 1902. She married Leo Ragan in 1922 and gave birth to twins in 1924. Just three years later, she died at age 25. At some point, Delma was a telephone switchboard operator in Cherryvale, Kan.

Bernd work001.jpg

Each cable in this photo connects to a telephone line. These four operators were required to be polite and discrete. The older woman supervises their demeanor. The two young women at the desk on the left appear to be operating a telegraph machine. The clock on the wall tells us that the photographer captured them at work at 11:05 a.m.

Bernd work002.jpg

Here, the women are in a break room reading, socializing and smiling for the camera.

So which one is Delma? There are several young women that could be her. If the family has another picture of her, they can compare the two and identify her.

The early 1920s were a time of transition for fashion. The dropped waists of the Flappers were just beginning to make an appearance. Short hair was becoming fashionable.

On the far right sits a young woman in a Middy Blouse. Sears Catalogs sold the sailor-collared shirt. The fabric choice determined the price. Jean fabric middies sold for less than a dollar; those made from wool flannel sold for approximately $4.

I’m hoping that Delma posed for a least one other picture before she died.


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  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
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  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
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    1. I love these switchboard operator photos! Believe it or not, when I started working in June 1972, I started on a switchboard like that with chords. Only 2 weeks later, we got a wonderful, new modern switchboard that sat on my desk. I often wish I had taken photos of the old switchboard with me sitting at it!

    2. In 1973,I too started my working career as an operator. We were called "cord board" operators. It was an interesting job. I suspect you may get quite a lot of comments from women who performed this job. I loved the photos.
      Pat

    3. My grandmother and my mother were both operators down on Wall Street, NY City. I worked as a secretary and had to cover the telephone operator on her lunch hour. It was in the early 1960’s on a smaller version than the one in the photo. You know this was an all female office place with flowers in vases in the room. Great photos, hope you find which girl is Delma.