Date of Award

Fall 2000

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

J W Harris


The predial telephone era in New Hampshire stretched from about 1877 to 1973. This dissertation examines predial telephone operating in the state as a category of women's work. While growing out of and responding to technical invention and development, telephone operating had deep roots in women's social roles; gender defined occupational options, the work environment, the rules of employment, wages, and expectations. As the telephone system developed, differences between telephone operating in large and small exchanges developed; the urban operator eventually worked under conditions of traffic volume, supervision, and control that the rural operator often did not. To uncover the differences, this dissertation traces and compares the early development of the telephone in two New Hampshire locations: the city of Manchester, which in 1878 or 1879 was the site of the first exchange in New Hampshire, and the village of Meriden in Plainfield, which in 1973 was the site of the last New Hampshire magneto system to convert to dial. To help maintain an approach told from telephone operators' perspectives, the research draws on oral history interviews of New Hampshire operators taken and transcribed in the decade from 1990--2000. Other documentation such as diaries, letters, newspapers, and census records support and build context. Following a roughly chronological order, chapter one, What Else Could A Woman Do? sets the context by outlining the occupational and social options for women in New Hampshire as the telephone system began. In The Telephone Comes to Manchester, and The Telephone Comes to Meriden, new research documents and compares development of the telephone business in a large and a small exchange in the state, including the introduction of women as telephone operators. Other chapters look at the effects of technical developments on the job, the heyday of telephone operating when independent and New England Telephone and Telegraph exchanges linked with AT&T's long lines to become part of a nationwide and then worldwide system, the conversion to automatic switching, and a comparison of images of operators with the actual experience of telephone operating. Appendix A is a discussion with examples of transcribing and using oral history excerpts for public presentations. Appendix B includes photographs of New Hampshire switchboards and operators.