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_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.