Women at Work: Switchboard Operators

By Maureen A. Taylor

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.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album