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Telephone operators were generally women. Their voices carried
better on early equipment and the women were found to be more
patient, helpful and polite than the men and boys who tried the work
in the earliest telephone systems in the United States.
In Alberta, companies kept costs down in the beginning by
bringing in operators for day and early evening shifts only. Until
1894, there was no telephone service in Edmonton after 8:00 p.m.
Even when 24-hour service was introduced it was only offered Monday
through Saturday. On Sunday, the telephone office remained open for
only two hours.
The starting wage for an Edmonton operator in 1908 was $30 per
In Edmonton and Calgary, automatic switching equipment changed
the role of the operators. Callers could place local calls
themselves and needed operators only for long-distance or toll
In 1908, with the arrival of automatic switching in Alberta,
urban operators no longer had to connect local calls, but a special
team of operators was retained to provide information to the public.
The operators remained quite popular, as many callers found it
easier to ask the operator for directory assistance than to find a
phone number in the listings. Operators would also give out the
correct time, a service which they provided many times throughout
the day to numerous callers. In the days before radio, it was not
unusual for operators to be overwhelmed by calls from sports fans
during Edmonton Eskimos hockey and Edmonton Grads basketball games.
Interview: Mr. Alf Want
The information service was re-named "directory assistance" to
discourage general calls about how to change diapers or cook
turkeys. These calls were a drain on staff time. Of all the services
provided by telephone operators, however, easy and fast directory
assistance remained the most popular for years. By 1972, an amazing
80 percent of directory assistance calls were placed to request
numbers that were already listed in the telephone book. It was in
that year that a 25 cent charge was finally introduced for these
types of calls.
Interview: Frieda Lauchrey
In rural areas, automatic switching arrived in the middle of the
20th century and operators continued to connect local calls for
decades. In some small centres, the operator’s living quarters were
located in the telephone office, and she slept in the same room as
the switchboard so she could handle calls through the night when
The rural operator was a respected member of the community who
knew everyone and provided many custom services, such as calling the
doctor wherever he was, or waking people in time to catch an early
But there were other duties performed by operators, and some of
them were lifesaving.
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Heritage Community Foundation and
Telephone Historical Centre All Rights Reserved