bookmark_borderSingle Women and the Telephone: From “Hello Girls” to Tech Pessimism

The telephone was wildly disruptive. It was a radical innovation that brought change, not the least for single women, both in the workplace and in the male imagination.

Women dominated the ranks of telephone operators early on, starting with Emily Nutt in 1878 Boston. The teenage boys handling the job before her were rude and swore on the line. Miss Nutt, however, was polite and used her soothing and cultured voice to charm customers.

Nutt opened a new profession for single women (married ladies of the time were expected to devote all their energy toward keeping house). Telephone work was more appealing to women than laboring in a factory or sweatshop. And exchanges were eager to hire women because they did the job better than men even though they were paid less.

From the New York Evening World, Nov 18, 1901.

By the early 1900s, female telephone operators had captured the public imagination.

Fascination centered around notions of the operator as a romantic object who blends flirtation with customer service.

Some men developed robust fantasies in connection with the “sweet symphony” of female voices heard on the line.

Newspaper pieces such as “Won Hello Girl by ‘Phone” in the 1902 New York Evening World boosted such ideas. The story detailed how a man implored an operator to “connect me with your heart.” According to the article, she did so and the couple married.

Ben Turpin as “Mr. Flip.”

The theme of female operators and romance (welcomed or not) found its way into several early motion pictures. Mr. Flip (1909) features a serial harasser of women in the workplace. The women, however, come up with unique punishments to inflict upon him, including an operator who “electrocutes him a little.”

The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913) Tells the story of a plucky operator who learns of a jewel theft over the wire, calls the police, and finds love with the responding officer.

Hello, Mabel (1914) has Mabel Normand playing “the Hello Girl” who must contend with “The Married Flirt” and “The Married Flirt’s Wife.”

A Lady of Chance (1928) stars Norma Shearer as Dolly “Angel Face” Morgan, a grifter who uses her job as a telephone operator to connect with wealthy gentlemen.

Fascination with telephone operators declined along with their numbers. After hitting a peak of about 235,000 in 1930, the job category steadily declined as technology permitted direct calls. In 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a total of just 5,000 workers classified as “telephone operators.”

Even the telephone itself, once monumentally innovative, is fading in popularity among younger people. Millennials, according to Forbes, are determined to “avoid phone calls — at all costs.”

Things may be starker still for women born after 1998. A 2019 study found that Gen Z women are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the impact of technology on society, perhaps due to the troubling prevalence of gender-based harassment on the internet.


bookmark_borderI’m Giving Away 20 Paperback Copies of “Murder In the Haunted Chamber” on Goodreads

The author’s dilemma: how to inform readers about a new book without a big-budget advertising budget? Ironically, perhaps, the answer is to give away copies for free!

Murder In the Haunted Chamber coverAnd so, I’m running a book giveaway contest on Goodreads for my new book until September 14, 2021. The prize is one of 20 autographed paperback copies of Murder In the Haunted Chamber, a historical mystery set in 1910 Baltimore. This is the second book in the Sarah Kennecott and Jack Harden Mystery series. To enter, click over to the contest website:

Dr. Sarah Kennecott is a brilliant young pathologist determined to get justice for murder victims despite her social awkwardness and trouble communicating with people. Jack Harden is a hard-boiled private dick suffering from what would now be called PTSD after witnessing a massacre overseas. The two form an unlikely friendship as they hunt criminals in early twentieth-century Baltimore.

The book opens with Sarah affirming disbelief in ghosts. But when her dead sister appears in a dream and correctly forecasts a murder, Sarah must find the killer. At the center of the mystery is a spiritual medium with hidden motives and a stunning secret.

Haunted memories push Jack Hardin near emotional collapse. The medium draws him in with a promise to contact his ghosts during a séance, an event that turns deadly.

The case tests their detective partnership as Sarah and Jack move from seedy saloons, to high society parlors, to confrontations with what might—or might not—be the supernatural. Everything, including their relationship and their lives, hinges on thwarting a killer who is deceptive, clever, and brutal.

The first book in the series is Into the Suffering City, which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.

One more thing about the giveaway noted above: it is open to readers in both the US and Canada.



bookmark_borderSex in Baltimore: Shocking Report Kept from the Public

In 1915 a government study on illicit sex left Baltimore “naked and exposed.” The Maryland Vice Commission, in the words of one excitable observer, had spent “three years stripping the clothes off” the city, and the official report presented a mountain of evidence about prostitution and other furtive sexual activities.

Prostitutes plying their trade in the red light district of Dawson, Yukon. Source: University of Washington, Special Collections.

The immediate public reaction was one of denial. Mayor James Harry Preston, quoted in The Baltimore Sun, labeled the report “a scandalous libel on life in Baltimore.” The head of the police chimed in, stating “these conditions do not exist” and swearing that his force kept a diligent eye on “questionable houses” to “arrest those who enter it for immoral purposes.”

Photograph of Storyville prostitute, by E. J. Bellocq, circa 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of Storyville prostitute, by E. J. Bellocq, ca. 1912. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Some reacted to the allegations with full-throated outrage. A grand jury summoned the commission chairman with a demand for the names of those interviewed in the study with an intent to interrogate them. “A heated argument followed” between the chairman and prosecutors, but no names were released.

Contemporary newspapers focused on the report’s findings in connection with streetwalkers and “questionable houses.” But the commission also reported on what it termed “clandestine prostitution,” which included the common practice of successful men keeping mistresses. This revelation no doubt made city leaders uncomfortable.

A powerful group of reformers refused to let the issue fade from view. Leading the charge was Dr. Howard A. Kelly, a prominent Johns Hopkins Hospital doctor and teetotaling moral crusader. Kelly was deeply religious and was known, when stopped at a red traffic light, to ask cab drivers “when you get to the gate of heaven, will there be a red light or a green light?” With the city keeping the report under wraps, Kelly published The Double Shame of Baltimore: Her Unpublished Vice Report and Her Utter Indifference. “Vice in low theatrical shows and sex immorality is literally eating the heart out of our city life,” he wrote. “For the first time in her life, Baltimore has gazed into a clear glass and beheld her natural face.”

Dr. Howard A. Kelly. Source: The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions
Dr. Howard A. Kelly. Source: The Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives of The Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Kelly reprinted two articles by Winthrop D. Lane, a pioneering social worker, who struck an even higher level of moral outrage. Lane wrote that the commission found “supposedly respectable” citizens, including many men “in high station,” were in fact sexual predators. They seduced stenographers and other young girls who worked for them. They preyed upon waitresses, salesgirls, and switchboard operators. They took women to private offices for immoral purposes. And a shocking number of “supposedly respectable women” solicited the attention of such men.

The city’s denial of the findings deeply aggrieved Kelly and Lane. “Apparently Baltimore did not know that she had ‘a body of flesh and blood and weakness’ … the discovery has been too much for her,” wrote Lane. Both held out hope that the report would be published so that “cities of similar characteristics and greater imagination” could benefit.

That didn’t happen. Opposition to the report was so intense the commission never dared publish its findings.

Controversy over the report receded quickly, arguably with the total defeat of both opposing viewpoints. The moral reformers hit a high-water mark with the start of prohibition in 1920, but their influence faded as the measure failed. And the Baltimore sin-deniers lost whatever credibility they had with the surging popularity of “The Block,” the city’s famous burlesque locale (and red-light district).

A single typescript original of the vice commission report rests on a shelf of the Special Collections Department of the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. The research appears rigorous and through, and while there are period-typical judgments as to “perversion” and “low intelligence,” information is presented with an objective intent.

The report is a unique document, historically invaluable, with dozens of transcribed interviews about why women went into prostitution, what their lives were like as prostitutes, how much money they made, and their physical experience of sex with customers. The document also has a commendable focus on public health concerns, political corruption, harassment of women in the workplace, and the evils of income inequality.

While failing to convince Baltimore of its “flesh and blood and weakness,” the vice commission succeeded far beyond its wildest imagination in creating a priceless historical record of the city and it’s all too human residents.

bookmark_borderHave There Always Been People on the Autism Spectrum?

What we now call autism has long existed among humans. But medicine only began noticing the particular set of physical and mental traits associated with autism within the last 100 years.

Three-year-old Joey Adams identifies items from flash cards during an in-home therapy session.

This issue has special relevance to me. I have an adult child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (the diagnosis has shifted over the years from Pervasive Developmental Disorder, to Asperger Syndrome, to others I have forgotten). Trying to get help in the mid-1980s was a struggle—very few doctors and no schools I dealt with had any experience with a child that we now say is “on the spectrum.” Gradually I learned more, and found that the condition was not as unique as it first seemed.

This got me wondering—how would a person on the autism spectrum have fared before there was any awareness of the condition? I channeled my interest into a novel set in 1909, Into the Suffering City: A Novel of Baltimore, with a protagonist I imagined as autistic. My character, Sarah Kennecott, could not have been diagnosed as such in 1909 because the concept had not yet been invented. But I am confident that people such as her existed at the time.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identified Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2013. This is the latest of many (often, in hindsight, ludicrously inept) attempts by the medical profession to categorize a particular set of physical and mental traits. Children and adults with autism have difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication. What follows is a non-exhaustive list of such traits as listed in the DSM:

Challenges in understanding or appropriately using:

    • Eye contact
    • Facial expressions
    • Tone of voice
    • Expressions not meant to be taken literally

Additional social challenges can include difficulty with:

    • Recognizing emotions in others
    • Expressing one’s own emotions
    • Seeking emotional comfort
    • Understanding social cues
    • Feeling overwhelmed in social situations
    • Gauging personal space (appropriate distance between people)
    • Repetitive body movements (e.g. rocking, flapping, spinning, running back and forth)

Autism Awareness

Many clinicians and advocates hail use of the term “spectrum” because an autistic person is like any other—they are a unique individual with their own way of being in the world. As Dr. Stephen Shore has noted, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Those with autism range from people who are fully disabled to those who are highly functional and have great success in life.

I represent Sarah as gifted academically. While many, perhaps most, people diagnosed with ASD have lower than average intelligence (as measured by tests), there is evidence that some with autism have exceptional intellects, including “increased sensory and visual-spatial abilities, enhanced synaptic functions, increased attentional focus, high socioeconomic status, more deliberative decision-making, [and] professional and occupational interests in engineering and physical sciences.”

Broad public awareness of autism dates to the 1988 film Rain Main, which starred Dustin Hoffman as an intensely awkward savant who could perform amazing, but highly selective, mental tasks. The film was useful for educating the public about autism, but also led to a general assumption that every autistic person was just like the Hoffman character. What we now call autism was largely unknown among the public prior to 1988. I know that from personal experience.

Dr. Eugen Bleuler

The first mention of autism in the DSM appeared in the 1980 edition. During the 1960s and 1970s autism was cruelly blamed on “refrigerator mothers” who failed to love their kids enough. Autism was also linked to schizophrenia as late as the 1970s. Leo Kanner in 1943 described a group of largely intelligent children who craved aloneness and “persistent sameness;” he called this “infantile autism.”

During the late 1930s and 1940s Hans Asperger used autism in reference to people with a perceived milder form of the condition that came to be known as Asperger’s syndrome. Eugen Bleuler coined the term autism sometime between 1908 and 1911 (there is disagreement as to exactly when) as a symptom of schizophrenia, another term that Bleuler invented. Bleuler derived autism from the Greek word meaning self, and used it in reference to people who lived in a world that was not accessible to others

Samuel Gridley Howe

But autistic-like behavior was noted long before the term itself came into use. As Kanner noted, “I never discovered autism—it was there before.” Samuel Gridley Howe gets credit for first noticing, prior to the American Civil War, that some people considered “idiots” had a combination of skills and strengths that set them apart from others with intellectual disabilities. Looking back into history, it is arguable that many people, including Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Thomas Jefferson, were autistic. They and other, less famous, people with autism were different than ordinary people. This difference often led to cruel treatment; my character Sarah is variously called odd, strange, peculiar, and even “a spastic little freak.”

The modern neurodiversity movement urges replacement of the term “disorder” with “diversity” to account for neurological strengths and weaknesses and to suggest that variations in brain wiring—such as autism—can be a net positive for individuals and for society as a whole. Neurodiversity and autism advocacy groups share an even more important goal: insisting that people whose minds work differently are treated with respect and compassion.


bookmark_borderWomen doctors faced profound discrimination a century ago

Women now make up about 60 percent of doctors under 35. The situation was very different in the past.

Dr. Mary Bacon
Dr. Mary Bacon, first woman doctor admitted to Bridgeton, NJ, Hospital staff. Shown on her graduation from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1916). Photo courtesy of Mary Caruthers Cossaboon.

In her book “Doctors Wanted, No Women Need Apply”: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1975, Mary Roth Walsh recounts the terrible difficulty women faced in studying medicine and in working as physicians. During the “golden age” of women physicians in the late nineteenth century, only about ten percent of medical students were female. The percentage dropped significantly in the following decades, mostly, according to Walsh, because male doctors wanted it that way.

I drew upon Walsh’s study and other sources in my depiction of Dr. Sarah Kennecott, the female co-protagonist in my book Into the Suffering City: A Novel of Baltimore. Sarah had an advantage in her quest to become a doctor in the first decade of the twentieth century. She was able to study at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, which was not only one of the best schools in the country—it was also one of the few top-flight institutions that admitted women. This liberal policy was in place only because a group of wealthy Baltimore women conditioned a substantial financial gift on the enrollment of female students.

Sarah is smart and determined. But, as I recount in the story, her talent cuts both ways. A senior faculty member acknowledges her academic success and then humiliates her in packed classroom of her peers with the following diatribe:

“Female success may force men to lose their confidence and their vitality. High-achieving females could drag medicine away from manly progress and toward useless womanly frivolity …. Yes, we can have first-rate women doctors—at great cost to the medical profession. Think of it—the physician of tomorrow might prefer mindless chatter rather than aggressive combat against disease.”

I paraphrased writings from the period conveying this exact sentiment among male doctors. Most men were convinced that women didn’t have “the right stuff” to equal male physicians. It was a confoundingly closed circle: men were seen as better suited to doctoring since the vast majority of doctors were men. Any women considering medicine had few role models to emulate. Toss in the ingrained sexism and misogyny on the part of more than a few male physicians, and the path forward for aspiring females was steep and rocky.

Credit: Wellcome Library. Caption suggests he has purposefully caught a cold in order to be seen by the young pretty doctor. CC BY 4.0

In my novel, Sarah is also on the autism spectrum, a trait unknown and unappreciated at the time. As with her superior intellect, her autism brings advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, she has trouble interacting socially and comes across as odd to neurotypicals. But she is able to mount a tremendous focus to get things done, as she is unencumbered by the distractions most people face. This is the same kind of autistic “superpower” attributed to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Like Thunberg, Sarah sees issues with fierce moral clarity and has a powerful commitment to justice.

Most women lacking a superpower in the past were effectively shut out of a medical career. With the rise of a more equitable educational and professional environment in recent years, that situation thankfully has changed.


bookmark_borderA viral song from 1909 turned American music sexy, rude, and violent

Posted on February 20, 2020 by billlefurgy

Sex elbowed its way into American popular culture during the early years of the twentieth century. I learned more about this while researching my novel, Into the Suffering City, which is set in 1909 Baltimore.

Romance had, of course, long been a staple of music played in the home and other venues. Songwriters a tacit agreement with moral guardians: focus on chaste courtship and keep the euphemisms and double entendres subtle. A song such as “Cuddle up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine” (1908) could tease with lyrics such as “she grew more cold, and he grew more bold” and “like to make you comfy, cozy/’cause I love from head to toesie, lovey mine.” No real harm done–-everyone assumed the cuddling couple were engaged and merely exploring the bounds of premarital affection.

Cracks were appearing in the surface of this placid conformity. Ragtime music, with its lively sound, appeared in the mid-1890s and was growing ever more popular. Young people found excitement in the music’s syncopation–displaced beats from the typical beat sequence of a song. “Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, a swing,” states the Library of Congress, “and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public.” Many older people found ragtime disreputable and dangerous due to its association with “low-class Black music” associated with brothels and saloons; no doubt this disdain only encouraged many others to embrace the sound.

Newspapers of the era document plenty of ragtime outrage. The Sioux City Journal of March 9, 1903, carried a story declaring the music immoral. “It’s rhythm is pernicious, it’s words abominable. If mothers want their boys to be good they must teach them to tune their whistles to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and spank them into abandoning … “[Just Because She Made Dem] Goo-Goo Eyes.” The St. Louis Republic on June 13, 1904, reported “the influence of ragtime music on the morals is like that of absinthe–it kills the better understanding,” and “the plague of trashy music is upon us like a fever epidemic, and its evil effects can be heard at all times and most places.”

The article was right about one thing: the audience for provocative music was expanding by leaps and bounds. New York’s songwriting capital, Tin Pan Alley, certainly noticed. In May 1909 Harry Von Tilzer and Jimmy Lucas released (actually, they stole it) “I Love, Love, Love My Wife, But Oh! You Kid!” a variation on a more innocent 1908 song. The lyrics were spiced up considerably:

Now Jonesy was a married man,
Oh yes, he was,
Sweet girlie on the single plan,
I guess, she was,
Now Jonesy stopped and spoke to girlie,
Just as old friends often do,
And he said “I’m married,
But, that but my dear means you.”

This casual acknowledgement imminent sex–-extramarital at that-–was rocket fuel for the song’s popularity. “Oh, You Kid madness” ensued with neckties, buttons, pins, figurines, and dishware. Everyone, so it seemed, was flinging the catchphrase around with a grin and a chuckle, impervious to the condemnation reigning down from clergymen and other upright citizens.

Issues cropped up when men used “oh you kid” on the street to flirt. Some recipients were indignant; the October 3, 1909 Detroit Free Press recorded one woman’s rejoinder as “you low down, cock-eyed street loafer!” The August 31,1909 Baltimore Sun says a judge fined users of uninvited “kid” comments $25.

Bigger problems took place when the catchphrase was lobbed at a woman within hearing range of a male gallant. The October 28, 1909, New York Times states that a stranger beat up a man who called out “oh you kid” to a young woman–even though the two were married. The judge hearing the case stated “he would not fine any man who administered” such a whipping. At least one fatality is attributed to such street interactions: the October 17, 1909, Baltimore Sun tells of a husband shooting a man to death in Atlanta after a “kid” remark.

The song and its related street altercations epitomized a fundamental contradiction in cities of the era. As young people flooded in to find work, there were naturally more of them out and about in public savoring freedom they never could have experienced back on the farm. This inspired a sense of adventure for most and boldness on the part of some. But an older social code that called for enforced female chastity still held sway.

The success flowing from “Oh! You Kid” opened the floodgates for racy songs, which chipped steadily away at staid social convention. Performers such as Sophie Tucker led the charge with tunes such as “That Loving Soul Kiss,” “Moanin’ Low,” and “I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mammas.” Tucker even turned the tables with a female meditation on adultery called “My Husband’s in the City.”

Thankfully, there are no known reports of street fights taking place over the lyrics of any Tucker songs.