The first telephone operator

02/07/2003 - 00:00 AM

  • The first telephone operator
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Who was Italy's first "young lady switchboard operator"?

Sadly there is no reliable documentation to offer an answer with any degree of certainty. But there is the name of a certain Milanese woman, one Edvige Calvi, which featured in an article in the Corriere della Sera newspaper and was subsequently republished in the SIP company magazine “Sincronizzando…”, along with a rather severe portrait.

Miss Calvi first began working as a switchboard operator in 1881, the year when the very first telephones went into service in Milan. In 1926, to mark 45 years in the job, Miss Calvi's "loyalty" to the telephone service was lauded by Giangiacomo Ponti, the general manager at STIPEL, at a ceremony attended by the entire staff of the newly-formed telephone company.

Miss Edvige is described as a "sharp, chatty and conscientious" little old lady. So conscientious, in fact, that "not even during the strike of 1901 did she fail to come to work", unlike many of her lady colleagues who "were in uproar".

The article uses the retirement of this long-serving employee as a pretext to review the history of the telephone service, focusing on the figure of the telephone operator, "so often ill treated by impatient and rude telephone subscribers", and "so often the obscure if hardly silent victim of a relentless and fatiguing job".

In the first few decades of the 20 th century the women who manned the switchboards did a job that was anything but light work. They worked in environments where telephones rang continuously – in the early years they worked on their feet – as they undertook a repetitive, monotonous and exhausting task, using technology that was wholly unsuitable because it broke down so often. In the 1920s doctors reported a certain frequency of nervous complaints and ear injuries amongst switchboard operators.

The women who worked the switchboards were in many ways a new type of figure in the workplace: this was unskilled work, almost exclusively undertaken by women (only night shifts, after an initial period, were undertaken by men), who did a job that could neither be compared with working in a factory nor with the skilled employment of typists and stenographers. Working as a switchboard operator also entailed "entering into contact" with strangers, most of whom were male, which broke one of the most enduring taboos of "what nice girls do". In the pioneering years of the telephone, it was not uncommon for the women who worked on switchboards to be looked down upon and sometimes even denigrated.

It became an imperative for both the "young ladies" and the telephone companies whom they represented to the public to conquer an air of "respectability" for the profession. This was achieved through training courses, the purpose of which was to teach the young women to be "courteous" but at the same time keep their distance from over-forward callers. This was backed up by a strict code of discipline, applied unfailingly by foreboding shift managers. The task of improving public perceptions of switchboard operators was continued by the new telephone companies that took over the telephone service in Italy from July 1925, through ceremonies, commendations and awards for these women. Miss Calvi's retirement party, at which she was celebrated as Italy's first switchboard operator, was precisely one such event.