· Hello Girls
It’s Wednesday, March 16, 1927. Cora Brown’s thirty-third birthday isn’t until Thursday, but she’s expecting her sister, Occie, and brother-in-law, to arrive any minute to help her celebrate. Occie’s promised to bring a freshly baked cake; Cora and Fay, her husband, will provide tea.
“It’s Occie and Sidney,” said Fay. “I’ll get the door.”
“Hello, Fay,” said Occie, handing him a picnic basket and receiving a kiss. “Where is she? Does she suspect anything?”
“She’s got the playing cards out,” said Fay, “and paper and pencil. I’ll take your coats.”
“Hello, Sidney,” said Cora.
“Happy birthday!” chirped Sidney.
“Thanks, Sidney,” said Cora, as she kissed him on the cheek.
“You’re gaining on me now,” said Occie, as she hugged her sister. “You’ll be forty before you know it.”
In minutes, the four were preparing to sit down when the doorbell rang. “If that’s an officer with a prisoner, I swear, I’ll tell him to come back in an hour, and I’m not joking,” promised Fay.
When Fay returned, he wasn’t alone. In filed a chorus of thirty off-duty Bell Telephone operators, all friends of Cora’s from her fourteen years working as an operator or information clerk. Originally hired at the Missouri & Kansas Telephone Company, Cora had gradually met most of her female house guests at Southwestern Bell Telephone. They had worked together until her resignation in November, after Fay’s victory in the county election.
“Fay,” asked Bertha, “what are you getting Cora for her birthday?”
“I’m taking her to the Midland Theater to see the movie The Taxi Dancer,” replied Fay. “It stars Joan Crawford and Owen Moore.”
But I thought you two already attend the movies every weekend, when you’re not out catching criminals,” Bertha said.
“That’s right,” Fay agreed with a wink and a smile, “but it’s the one gift I’m sure she’ll like and one she can’t exchange.”
Sidney said to Fay, “I read in the newspaper that you were called out to Partridge last night around midnight. Is that right?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Fay, “a county resident was threatened by four men. Right now, I’ve got them charged with disturbing the peace, but I’m not getting the full story just yet from any of them.”
Did you get any sleep at all?” asked Sidney. “The newspaper said you arrested Matt Allen on a warrant at 3 o’clock this morning for intent to kill.”
“Yeah,” said Fay, “I was already up and figured I’d rouse him from bed. The felony warrant alleged Allen had thrust a gun into the side of an employee at Anderson’s Restaurant. This was after the worker refused to let Allen spike a beer.”
Cora asked Myrtle, “Has Mr. Quigley said anything about the Senate voting to keep the ‘blue law’ ban in place?”
“He’s got a renewed bounce in his step,” answered Myrtle. “None of us were prepared to work seven days a week. We’re pleased the Public Utilities Commission is fighting any changes to the law; so are the street car conductors. Sunday should remain a day for ourselves, church, and the family.”
“Sheriff,” said a guest, “have you any word on those Colorado bank robbers who were nearly caught outside Garden City?”
“The Finney County sheriff thinks they wounded or killed two of the suspects who robbed the bank near Colorado Springs,” answered Sheriff Brown. “Two of the men have been identified as Eddie Jenkins and Bob Collins. Collins is an escapee from the Pratt County Jail.”
The newspaper said the car they used in the bank robbery had been stolen right here in Hutchinson,” said the guest. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” agreed the sheriff, “that’s one reason why our men and the Vigilantes have spent so much time watching the roads into Hutchinson, in case they retrace their route.”
“Are our subscribers still forgetting to hang up their phones?” Cora asked a few nearby ladies.
The women shook their heads disgustedly, as if the public purposefully ignored a fundamental rule of life. If a receiver was left off the hook, the company sometimes had to send out trouble men to notify the subscribers to replace the receivers on the hooks.
“What’s this world coming to?” asked Miss Iva Lewis, speaking to anyone who would listen.
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Lois Gish, “we’re much better off today than we were a few years ago.”
“Increasingly, our country has more bank robberies,” stated Iva. “I couldn’t believe that bandits cut the telephone lines and then bombed the money truck on the way to the Pittsburgh Coal Company mine. I heard the driver of the truck and two guards were injured badly. Is anyone safe anywhere, anymore?”
Fay had stopped talking and was listening to Iva, who was increasingly anxious. This wasn’t the birthday celebration he had envisioned for Cora.
Fay caught Occie’s eye, rotated his wrist like he was reeling in a fish, and gave a sideways head-motion towards the nearby Victrola. It was time for some music, dancing, games, and food. Fay hadn’t planned the party, but he figured that either a game of charades or some Charleston dance music could spark a fire and encourage an evening of fun and laughter.
In the future, at the office, Fay was willing to talk to Miss Iva Lewis about common criminals, gangsters, and machine-gun mobsters, but not during Cora’s party.
Flossie Pate, 20, had received her on-the-job telephone operator training from Cora.
Playing a round of charades, Flossie silently read the written phrase to herself. Ready, she hunched over and held her hands open with the palms facing up, inches above her ears. Cora, her teammate, guessed the word ‘Atlas,’ then ‘world.’
Flossie held up one finger and Cora shouted, ‘first.’ Flossie nodded, then she used both hands in a fluid, parallel motion, from top to bottom, showing a curvy human figure, and added a half-circle above her chest to represent breasts. “Woman,” was Cora’s knowing response.
Finally, Flossie sat on a chair, put on a pair of imaginary ear coverings, and started pushing invisible cords and plugs into holes on a wall. Ready to guess the answer, Cora announced confidently: “World’s first woman telephone operator, Emma Nutt.”
“Correct!” announced the judge, followed by cheers, and a round of applause.
Fay turned off a few of the lights in the room. Occie entered carrying a cake with green icing and lit candles as part of the double Saint Patrick-Cora Brown anniversary celebration.
“Speech!” someone yelled.
Cora obliged before making a wish and blowing out the candles.
“Each of you will always be my family,” said Cora. “We’re the ‘Hello Girls,’ the ones who are a much better fit connecting phone calls than any young boy or man. We’re the efficient worker, the soothing voice, ‘the voice with a smile.’ Unfortunately, we’re barely paid half as much as men for our labor, but better days are ahead.
“I’ve learned tonight that while you connect each call, instead of repeating the phone number as I did, you follow a new procedure using two powerful words. I’ll use the same words right now. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Cora took a deep breath, opened her mouth, leaned forward, and blew out thirty-three birthday candles.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.