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.