Saint Andrews – September 1 is unofficially Emma M. Nutt Day. Now, it may not mean all that much to you. In fact, you are probably thinking, “Who in the heck is Emma M. Nutt, and what did she do to merit a day named for her?”
Well, Emma Nutt was the world’s first female telephone operator, working for the Bell Telephone Company in Boston. She grew up in Perry, Maine, but spent her very early childhood in Saint Andrews, depending on which source you cite for her age.
According to one source, Emma was born in Perry in 1848. But, her family is not recorded in the 1850 census for Washington County. In fact, they appear in the Charlotte County 1851 census. They had moved to Saint Andrews in 1850, and were living with other family members. Emma’s father, George Nutt, was working as a clerk, while his brother John was working on the new railroad. There was also another relative in the area, Emma’s grandmother, Hannah Stickney, who was originally from St. Stephen.
After a few years in Charlotte County, Emma and her family moved back to Perry, where her father worked as a grocery clerk. During this time, Emma’s sister Stella was born. Stella would later go on to work with her sister as a telephone operator. Later, the family would settle in Chelsea, MA, a suburb of Boston.
In 1880, Emma was 32-years-old and working for the new Boston Telephone Dispatch Company, a telegraph company that many telephone operators were recruited from. Initially, it was generally teenage boys who were hired to be telephone operators. But, after a period of time, it was discovered that women had more patience, and were a lot more pleasant with the customers. The boys had a tendency to play pranks, and at times even swore at customers.
Also, companies could save money because women were paid lower wages than men. There was a great customer response to Emma’s soothing voice, and it wasn’t long before women were sought after for this position.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the first telephone, and by 1877, the idea of a telephone exchange came about in Connecticut. This idea had originally been worked on by a Hungarian engineer who worked with Thomas Edison, but Edison wasn’t overly excited about it. Once the new telephone came into existence, this idea was revived, and by 1978, the Boston central telephone exchange was up and running, and needed operators. This is where Emma comes in.
Changing jobs, Emma was hired by Alexander Graham Bell, and earned $10 per month for her 54-hour work weeks. It is said that she was able to remember every single number in the New England Telephone Company directory.
Not only was it rare for a woman to be hired for a position such as this, the requirements were exceptionally strict. For instance, women had to be unmarried, and between the ages of 16 and 26. Emma’s sister, Stella, did just that in 1885.
If an operator were to marry, she would have to leave her job. They also had to be tall enough to be able to reach the switchboards. They also had to be white, and not of any other ethnicity, including Jewish and African American. They were expected to work 10 hours daily, up to six days per week.
In 1911, Emma retired as a telephone operator, and along with her mother, lived with her sister Stella and her family until her death in 1923. Today, September 1 commemorates the hiring of Emma M. Nutt, the first female telephone operator in the world, who started out as a small town girl living in Saint Andrews.