R2997 Telephonists at the Brisbane telephone exchange, 1910

R2997 Telephonists at the Brisbane telephone exchange, 1910

Description

This is a black-and-white photograph taken in 1910 of women telephonists at the Brisbane telephone exchange. The photograph shows a long row of women wearing headsets and seated at a manual 'plug and cord' switchboard. Two women, who are supervisors, observe the telephonists. The man at the rear of the photograph is the manager of the exchange, Mr Watson. The photograph accompanied an article about the introduction of a new automatic telephone toll system at the exchange, which appeared in the 10 September edition of the weekly newspaper 'The Queenslander' in 1910.

Acknowledgements: From the collection of the National Archives of Australia.

Educational value
This asset illustrates an aspect of the Brisbane telephone exchange in this period - the exchange opened in 1880 and was one of the first exchanges in Australia; it was located on the first floor at the rear of the telegraph section of the General Post Office; telephone exchanges were based in post offices because the Commonwealth Postmaster General was responsible for telecommunications.
It indicates that telephone exchanges were manually operated in this period - the plug and cord switchboards enabled the telephonists to speak to and connect incoming callers to another line; the new board shown in the photograph automatically recorded calls, freeing telephonists from manual notation.
It suggests that telephony was primarily a female occupation in this period - telephony offered young women from the lower-middle and working classes a higher status and better-paid alternative to domestic service or factory work; in response to concerns that women were too 'highly strung' for this work, 'The Queenslander' noted that 'Each girl looked absorbed in her work, and appeared perfectly trained and disciplined to respond to what was required of her'.
It shows that women were also employed as supervisors at the Brisbane telephone exchange - after a visit to the exchange in 1910, Alexander Graham Bell noted approvingly that no other industry 'offers more opportunity for the advancement of women than the Telephone industry'.
It portrays women at work - after the turn of the 19th century single women began entering the paid workforce in greater numbers.
It suggests that telephone usage was increasing in this period - by 1910 Australia had more telephones relative to population than most other comparable countries.
It shows that working conditions at the exchange were basic - the brick walls are exposed, there is no floor covering and it is unlikely that the room was adequately heated or ventilated.
It gives examples of how women dressed for work in this period - a smart, tailored skirt with its hemline brushing the feet, an embroidered white blouse and black boots were favoured for office wear; women tended to wear their hair long, usually pulled together into a plait or flat coil and drawn onto the crown of the head or tied back.
Topics
Employment
Australian history
Females
Telephone exchanges
Rights
© Curriculum Corporation and National Archives of Australia, 2008, except where indicated under Acknowledgements