"Exchange Here, How May We Help?"

The Telephone Operator: A Historically Female Profession at the Post Office

By Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Fernsprechtischapparat M 00 / OB 05 (ab 1900, umgebaut 1914)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In the early days of the telephone, the devices had no dials or keypads. Conversations had to be connected via a central exchange—and via the "ladies of the exchange" employed there.

Fotografie "Handvermittlung in Stettin" (1893)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

"The Women's Room at the Post Office"

Beginning in the 1890s, the German Post employed unmarried young women—first as unskilled workers for the telephone service on a trial basis, then later as full-time telephone operators.

Fotografie; Fernmeldedienst, Vermittlung, Handvermittlung (1901) by Hersteller: Deutsche Bundespost, Fernmeldetechnisches Zentralamt (FTZ), BildstelleMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

The supposed reason for appointing women was because characteristics that were considered "typically female"—patience and empathy—were perfect for meeting the demands of the hectic exchange service.

Fotografie; Betriebssaal des Fernsprechamts "Hansa" (Fernsprechamt 2) in Berlin (1919)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

But in fact, this development was actually linked to the rapidly increasing number of telephone lines, the greater requirement for exchange staff, and the fact that wages for female employees were lower.

Klappenschrank für 100 Teilnehmer, 1886, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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When the exchange service first started, a telephone operator's workstation consisted of a switchboard, a "headset," and connection cords used to link two lines together.

Hör- und Sprechgarnitur, Brustmikrofon mit Einfachkopffernhörer, Hersteller: Mix & Genest AG Telephon- und Telegraphenwerke (1879 - 1958, ab 1889 AG), um 1910, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Fotografie; Klappenschrank für die Handvermittlung von Ortsgesprächen im Postamt der Kaiserlich Deutschen Reichspost Schönberg/Holstein (1905)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

The technical process of performing manual exchanges at the switchboard involved several steps…

Anyone who wanted to phone somebody had to call the central exchange by cranking the telephone. This created an electrical impulse that caused the metal flap assigned to the line to fall down on the switchboard.

As soon as the exchange operator at the central exchange answered, the caller gave the number they wanted to call and the operator plugged in a connection cord to link the two lines.

To signal the end of the conversation, the caller operated the crank again. The telephone operator then terminated the connection.

During the conversation, the operator was expected to be as "invisible" as possible to the participants, becoming the ideal interface to project their conversation onto.

Fotografie "Amt Nollendorf (Telefonistin mit Abfragegarnitur)" (1919)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

"Young Lady, Phone Fairy, Guardian Angel"—Stereotypes and Daily Work

Self-confident, independent, glamorous: For many, the female telephone operator embodied the ideal "modern woman" in the 1920s. She was sung about in contemporary songs and immortalized in literature.

Ansichtspostkarte; Tier-Post No.4 "Katzentelephonie" (1908)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Contemporary caricatures give a good impression of what characteristics this group of professionals were thought to have and what people imagined the daily work of a telephone operator to be like.

Fotografie; Zwei Mitarbeiterinnen der Deutschen Reichspost mit Sprechgarnitur bei der Handvermittlung von Ferngesprächen an Verbindungsplätzen (B-Plätze) in einem Ortsamt (um 1925)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In reality, however, working conditions were difficult:
the repeated speech patterns and movements when performing exchanges were exhausting and monotonous, yet still required high levels of concentration.

Fotografie; Fernsprechgehilfinnen der Deutschen Reichspost bei der Handvermittlung von Ferngesprächen in der Vermittlungstelle "Moritzplatz" im Fernsprechamt 4 in Berlin, Prinzsessinenstraße 25 (1924)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Until 1914, telephone operators worked for around 42 hours per week. The women were monitored while working, and repeated mistakes led to cuts in their wages.

Uniform, Deutsche Reichspost, Kleid (Kittel), weibl. Bedienstete vom Fernmeldedienst, Fräulein vom Amt, Fernmeldeamt Oldenburg, um 1925, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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The work uniform was sleek and functional so that it did not hinder the telephone operator's work and slow down the exchange process.

Abbildung; Auszug aus Personalakte, Hersteller: Oberpostdirektion Nürnberg, 1923, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Women worked at the post office under the condition that they were single and would stay that way.

If they married, they had to leave the service and, until 1923, also lost all claims to a pension.

Fotografie; Gruppenaufnahme von Fernsprechbeamtinnen der Deutschen Reichspost beim Fernsprechamt Mitte in Berlin, Jägerstraße 42, in der Vermittlungsstelle "Merkur, 1923, From the collection of: Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication
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Fotografie "Handvermittlung im Ortsamt Chemnitz mit 9000 Anschlüssen" (1918)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

Wartime

During times of war, women often had to undertake tasks that were previously carried out by men. During the First World War, the Deutsche Reichspost recorded a historic peak in female employees. However, relatively few of them were new telecommunications officers.

Fotografie; Mitarbeiterinnen des Fernamts (FA) der Deutschen Reichspost in Berlin bei der Handvermittlung von Ferngesprächen (um 1940)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

During the Second World War, women were employed in the telephone service for "rapid response" due to a shortage of staff. They carried out activities that had to be learned beforehand in just a few weeks.

Fotografie; Mitarbeiterin der Deutschen Post der DDR beim Aufbau einer Vermittlungseinrichtung System S 65 (28.07.1978)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

East and West

The division of Germany after the war not only had political implications; it also had impacts on society—including women's employment. In the GDR, two thirds of employees in the postal and telecommunications sector were female.

Plakat "Sie sparen 20 Prozent bei Ferngesprächen über das "Fräulein vom Amt"" (1960) by Künstler: Landmann Walter Richard ErnstMuseum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

In the Federal Republic of Germany up to 1966, all local exchanges were automated. Long-distance calls, however, were made using manual exchanges for a much longer period and were an expensive affair. A special advertising campaign was needed.

Farbfilm (Ausschnitt): Hier Teheran - Bitte sprechen (1964) by Hersteller: Deutsche Bundespost, Filmstelle der Deutschen Bundespost beim Fernmeldetechnisches Zentralamt (FTZ)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

"What does a young Iranian woman think about our Federal Republic and the Deutsche Bundespost?" This question is answered in this film, recorded in 1960 when 25 Iranian postal administration employees visited Germany. The camera follows Sore Hashemi on her long journey through her training at the Deutsche Bundespost, during her visit to Hamburg and the coastal radio station in Norddeich, on a shopping trip, and during a visit to the Cuvilliés Theater.

Text from the Film Listing of the Deutsche Bundespost, 1964.

Shown here is a two-minute clip of the 18-minute film.

Fotografie; Mitarbeiterin der Deutsche Telekom AG beim Aufbau einer digitalen Vermittlungsstelle in den neuen Bundesländern im Rahmen des Aubauprogramms der Deutschen Telekom "Aufbau Ost" (um 1992)Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

After the Fall

In the 1990s, the Deutsche Post was actually the largest employer of womenin Germany. However, the telephone operator profession completely disappearedafter the introduction of the digital exchange 10 years before.

Videotrailer: Las Chicas del Cable /Die Telefonistinnen, Spanische Spielfilm-Serie des US-Unternehmens Netflix (2017) by Hersteller: Netflix; Regie führten Carlos Sedes, David Pinillos, Antonio Hernández und Roger Gual.Museum for Communication Frankfurt, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

This video shows a trailer of the Spanish series "Las Chicas del Cable" (Cable Girls) shown on the US streaming service Netflix. Today, the role of the telephone operator continues to be looked back on with a certain nostalgia. The film industry uses this stereotype and weaves it into stories, often with the theme of emancipation.

Working as a telephone operator was one of the first ways women could gain financial independence and therefore defy social expectations. However, looking back, the difficult working conditions of the telephone operators should not be forgotten.

Credits: Story

"Exchange Here, How May We Help?" The Telephone Operator: A Historically Female Profession at the Post Office

A virtual exhibition by the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

Curator: Anjuli Spieker

Literature:

Bühlmann, Yvonne/Zatti, Katharina (1992): Sanft wie eine Taube, klug wie eine Schlange und verschwiegen wie ein Grab. Frauen im schweizerischen Telegrafen- und Telefonwesen (1870–1914) [As Gentle as a Dove, as Cunning as a Snake, and as Quiet as the Grave. Women in the Swiss Telegraph and Telephony (1870–1914)]; Chronos Verlag, Zürich

Gold, Helmut/Koch, Anette (1993): Fräulein vom Amt [Women of the Exchange]; Prestel Verlag, Munich

Jörges, Christel/Gold, Helmut (2001): Telefone 1863 bis heute [Telephones 1863 to Today]; Museumsstiftung für Post und Telekommunikation in Cooperation With Edition Braus Im Wachter-Verlag, Heidelberg

Nienhaus, Ursula (1995): Vater Staat und seine Gehilfinnen. Die Politik mit der Frauenarbeit bei der Deutschen Post (1846–1945) [Father State and His Lady Helpers. The Politics With Women's Work at the Deutsche Post (1846–1945)]; Campus Verlag, Frankfurt/New York

Instructions for Switching and Transmission Points from 1885–1917; Nuremberg Telephone Exchange

All objects from the collection of the Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

www.museumsstiftung.de

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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