WOMEN TELEGRAPHERS IN THE WEST;
IMAGES AND REALITIES
By Thomas C. Jepsen
National Coalition of Independent Scholars
515 Morgan Creek Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
by Thomas C. Jepsen
When one encounters a picture of a woman working as a telegrapher in nineteenth-century popular literature, the image always seems to lack context; women telegraph operators do not fit neatly into either of the predominate stereotypes of nineteenth-century women's work: the devoted wife and mother, secure in her domestic sphere; or the exploited factory operative, forced to work long hours in order to earn a subsistence living. This is due to the fact that today, we have largely forgotten that women ever did this sort of work, whereas a hundred years ago, women operators were too commonplace to even remark upon. In fact, in 1897, Frances Willard noted that the sight of "a young woman presiding over the telegraph in offices and railway stations" was so ordinary an occurrence "that one has ceased to have even a feeling of surprise at seeing them there."(1)
Today, we are surprised when we come upon something like the following essay, which appeared in Electrical World in 1886:
Far out on the western plains, wherever there is a road station, almost invariably the traveler sees a pretty lace or muslin curtain at the window, a bird cage hanging up aloft and some flowering plants on the narrow sill, or a vine trained up over the red door (these stations all along the line of the road are painted a dull, dark red) and other signs of the feminine presence, and if he looks out as the train stops he will be nearly sure to see a bright, neatly dressed, white-aproned young woman come to the door and stand gazing out at the train and watching the passengers with a half-pleased, half-sorry air. This is the local telegraph operator, who has taken up her lonely life out here on the alkali desert amid the sage brush, and whose only glimpse of the world she has left behind her is the brief acquaintance with the trains which pass and repass two or three times during the day. These are true types, all of them, of our brave American girl, whose courage is equal to the emergency.(2)
This image is cinematic, which is particularly interesting given that it predates the earliest cinema by about ten years. It is not too hard to imagine the screenplay; to the eye of the moving camera on the train, the railroad depot appears in the distance and moves closer, finally becoming a static image directly in the line of sight of the railroad passenger. The passenger is close enough to the telegrapher's window to discern the details of the interior decoration. The white-aproned telegrapher, having already reported the train "On Schedule" from inside the depot, stands on the platform, perhaps conversing with the train crew. As the train leaves the station, the telegrapher waves and finally disappears in the distance.
The thing that makes this image romantic and intriguing is the isolation of the operator. To the eye and mind of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, isolation implied vulnerability for a woman. This is the point of the last line, about "our brave American girl, whose courage is equal to the emergency." She must be brave, because she is alone in the desert.
An illustration showing the inside of a rural telegraph station with a female operator appeared at the head of an article in Harper's Monthly Magazine in August 1873. Although the "muslin curtains" mentioned by the Electrical World commentator are nowhere in evidence, one does note a few attempts at personalization of the work environment, such as a vine plant and a picture on the wall. The depiction of the telegraphic equipment is accurate - on the operator's table are a telegraphic relay, a printing register, a cutoff switch, and a camelback telegraph key. On the floor is a battery box containing two Daniell cells, which supplies the electricity for the telegraph.(3)
(Barbara Gowans/Emily Warburton photo)
A photograph of two Utah telegraphers, Barbara Gowans and Emily Warburton, taken in 1871 upon their graduation from telegraphy school in Salt Lake City, confirms some of the details of the Harper's picture. Their dress is similar to that of the woman in the Harper's illustration; the register on the table in front of them is nearly identical to the one in the magazine article.
Thanks to the Mormon tradition of maintaining family histories, we know a fair amount about both women. Barbara Gowans was born in Liverpool, England, in 1855, and emigrated to the United States with her parents, who were Mormon converts. She worked as an operator in Tooele until her marriage to Benjamin L. Bowen in 1876. Emily Warburton married Dr. William B. Dodds in 1879 and began a second career as a licensed medical practitioner.(4)
(Railroad Stories cover)
In addition to sending and receiving messages, telegraphers had to "hand orders" to passing trains, as shown in this Railroad Stories cover from September 1935. Train orders were instructions to train engineers concerning schedule changes, stops, and cargo loading; A centrally located dispatcher would transmit them telegraphically to the operator at each station, who would then transcribe them onto thin sheets of paper called "flimsies." The flimsies were then attached to a five-foot-long bamboo pole or hoop referred to as an "order hoop." As a train sped past the station, the operator would hold out the order hoop, and a member of the train crew would grab it as the train sped by.(5)
During his Biograph Studios days, the American director D. W. Griffith was seized by the possibilities of the image of the female operator at her lonely outpost, and made it the central focus of two of his earliest feature-length films, "The Lonedale Operator" and "The Girl and Her Trust." The "Lonedale Operator" was the earlier of the two films; it was made in 1911 and starred Blanche Sweet. She is the telegraph operator at a remote western railroad station; even the name "Lonedale" suggests her isolation. When the station is attacked by bandits, she resourcefully defends herself by wrapping a monkey wrench with a handkerchief, fooling the bandits into believing that it is a gun. She successfully holds them at bay until help arrives.
"The Girl and Her Trust," made the following year and starring Dorothy Bernard, is essentially a remake of "The Lonedale Operator" which incorporated some of the technical advances that Griffith had made in the year that separated their filming. The plot of "The Girl and her Trust" is more sophisticated and has better continuity; Griffith adds a chase sequence in which a moving camera mounted on a car follows a speeding train, creating an image of great speed.(6)
(Girl and Her Trust)
Dorothy Bernard's character, Grace the telegrapher, must deal not only with bandits, who are trying to steal a company payroll, but also with several prospective suitors. The first is a pathetic and ill-dressed character played by Griffith himself in a cameo role; he attempts to ingratiate himself with the operator by offering her a soft drink. She rebuffs his overtures, however, and orders him out of the office; clearly she has learned how to deal with what one observer referred to as "men of the rudest, most uncultured type," who tended to hang around the local depot.(7) She also must fend off the advances of the station agent, who attempts to steal a kiss from the unsuspecting operator when she offers him a drink of her soda.
The notion that women telegraph operators were available for romantic encounters was a common one which engendered its own literary form, the telegraphic romance, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Depot telegraph operators, as Jacqueline Dowd Hall observed in her essay on telegrapher and editor O. Delight Smith, were "notable less for their skills than for their unsupervised sexuality." (8)
Grace's adventure begins when she receives telegraphic notice that a large company payroll is due to arrive on the next train. She is the express agent as well as the telegrapher, a not-uncommon practice in the railroad depot. She is responsible for the safekeeping of the payroll until it is picked up by company officials. The station agent offers to load a pistol for her protection; she refuses the offer, saying that "nothing ever happens" at this station.
However, some tramps have arrived with the payroll and are plotting to break into the express box and steal the payroll. When Grace becomes aware of what they are plotting, she barricades herself in the telegraph office and wires to the next station for help. The thieves cut the wires; they then try to break into her office to obtain the key to the express box. However, she uses a scissors and hammer to explode one of the bullets in the door lock to make the thieves believe that she has a gun.
Meanwhile, the operator at the next station has received her plea for help, and dispatches a train to rescue her; he sends a train order giving the train right of way over all other trains. The thieves, unable to open the express box without the key, decide to escape with the box and break into it elsewhere. Grace leaps onto their handcar as they speed away, determined to fulfill her duty to guard the payroll. The rescue train bears down on the escaping bandits; Griffith films the train chase scene with a moving camera, one of the earliest uses of this technique.
Grace, grateful for her rescue, rewards the station agent with a kiss. It is the proverbial happy ending; to paraphrase Jacqueline Hall, she has proven both her competence and her femininity, asserting both her womanliness and her place as one of "the Railroad Boys." (9)
Griffith's two Biograph films are among the earliest films which can be categorized as "Westerns," and it is interesting to note that they both feature women as central characters. Although Grace is shown as being "vulnerable," she overcomes her vulnerability through her resourcefulness and technical knowledge.
One might ask how Griffith's portrayal of the daily life of a woman telegrapher compared with reality. In some respects, his portrayal of the working environment is realistic; Grace's office is not markedly different from that of Carrie Pearl Seid, who was a railroad telegrapher in 1907. Like Grace, her telegraphic equipment is fairly rudimentary, consisting of a key, a Morse sounder, and a relay; she also has a switch lever which she uses to change the flags on the signal tower.(10)
Carrie Pearl Seid's office
Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Anne Barnes Layton would have agreed that the work could be lonely and isolating. She became the telegraph operator for the Utah Central Railroad in Woods Cross, Utah, in 1879, a post she inherited from her older sister, Mary Ann, and held for five years. She was the sole operator at a sparsely equipped railroad station where the telegrapher's equipment consisted of only her instruments, a flag and red lantern for signalling trains, and a supply of train orders and telegraph forms. She sometimes had to work as many as eighteen hours a day when trains had to be rerouted due to bad weather or accidents. Although she didn't seem to feel any sense of vulnerability, she did write that the work was occasionally lonely and isolating. Her friends would call at the station to see if she could go with them to parties and dances; however, as she later recalled, "I had to remain at my post until the last train cleared and they often were late, so I missed a lot of social life."(11)
Elaine Casterline, who was a telegraph operator for the Atlantic Coast Line in Ocala, Florida, in 1942, also agreed that the work could be lonely and isolating. She wrote that "the night jobs were lonely and the only communication was the telegraph key. Since I was new at this work, I spent most of my time practicing the key and code. I remember sitting near a pot-bellied stove, and burned a hole in the sole of boots keeping my feet warm."(12)
According to the telegraphic romances, the best way for women operators to deal with isolation was to strike up an acquaintance with the operator down the line, an acquaintance which, at least in the view of an 1870's illustrator for Harper's Weekly, was likely to result in romance.
("Telegraphic Romance" illustration)
The reality, however, was often far from romantic. Ma Kiley, a female boomer who worked in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1910, had to deal with male co-workers who would impersonate her over the lines and set up rendezvous with male operators. She recalled one such incident in her autobiographical account of her life and work, "The Bug and I," which appeared in Railroad Magazine in 1950:
(1903 photo of Ma Kiley)
Word got about that there was a woman in the office and the third trick chief began telling the "lids" (ham operators) that he was the lady telegrapher. He used a bug sending machine, making it sound light and quick.(13) He fooled the hams completely and got up quite a flirtation with one hick. The fellow finally called at the office one afternoon and asked me if I was "ready." I asked him "for what?" He was dressed up in his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, had a silk hanky stuffed down his collar clear around his neck, and was sweating like all get out. He answered me, "Why, to the show, of course. You promised you'd go, didn't you?" I stared at him a minute and told him, "You may be drunk or just crazy, but I never saw or heard of you before and I surely didn't promise to go out with someone I'd never seen." Then he asked me if I didn't sign myself "su", and I told him that the third wire chief signed himself that way. He didn't wait for any further explanation.(14)
(Illustration from "The Bug and I")
As technically skilled wage-earning women in the nineteenth century, female telegraphers inhabited a blurry area between the traditionally private sphere of domesticity, inhabited by women, and the public sphere, inhabited by men. This distinction was not as strong in the West, where it was acknowledged that women might have to take on nontraditional roles, as in the East; women telegraphers in the West were regarded as being no more remarkable than, say, women homesteaders or women journalists, who were also fairly common in the West. Nevertheless, for individual women, combining domestic life with telegraphic work required ingenuity. Mary Ellen Love, an operator in rural Utah in the 1870's, simply moved the telegraph office into her home after her marriage to Benjamin Barr Neff in 1870. It was a not uncommon practice for women commercial operators; they were arguably the earliest "electronic commuters." A year later, however, after the birth of a baby, she was asked by the Utah Central Railroad to become the railroad operator at nearby Sandy, Utah. Because she was the only skilled operator in the vicinity, she agreed, taking her baby with her to the office every day.(15)
Some women railroad operators literally raised a family while at the key. After the death of her husband in 1884, Cassie Tomer Hill became the operator, express agent, and ticket agent at Roseville, California; to keep an eye on her family while she worked, she moved her five children into the depot. Children who grew up in the depot often became telegraphers themselves. Abbie Struble Vaughan, who worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Mexican National Railroad, had four children, all of whom became operators. Not only her sons, George and Latrobe, but also her daughters, Madge and Lucie, entered their mothers' occupation.(16)
This blurriness of roles is evident in the cinematic portrayals of women operators and their work. In the 1940s and 1950s, as the telegraph itself was approaching obsolescence, a number of westerns were made which featured women telegraph operators as stock characters; among these were "Western Union," made in 1941, and "Overland Telegraph," made in 1951. In the 1953 movie, "Kansas Pacific," telegrapher Barbara Bruce, played by Eve Miller, has to alternate between her role as railroad section chief Cal Bruce's dutiful daughter, who must prepare meals and do the dishes, and her role as telegrapher, providing the only link between the isolated railroad camp and the rest of the world. Thus her telegraphic skills give her a special significance, and make her a central character in the plot, in which Confederate sympathizers are sabotaging the building of a railroad in pre-Civil War Kansas. Notice how quickly she switches roles as a message comes in while she is clearing the dinner dishes:
Notice also the look she gives her father when he suggests that she has made a mistake in reading the message.
While women telegraphers have been largely ignored by scholars, their images can be found in the popular culture as part of the romanticized image of the railroads and the western frontier. As seen in popular magazines and movies, women telegraph operators were noted primarily for their availability for romantic involvement; in reality, however, their work was highly technical and demanding. The telegrapher was the railroad equivalent of an air traffic controller; he or she was responsible not only for ensuring that the trains ran on time, but also for the lives and safety of the passengers.
The unwritten history of the women telegraph operators is part of the larger story of the entry of women into technological fields. In telecommunications, as well as in the related areas of aviation and computer science, we are just beginning to rediscover the role that women played in the early development of these technologies. To paraphrase Ruth Perry and Lisa Greber, the "currently available history" underwrites the standard story of the "masculine roots" of telecommunications, whereas "the unwritten history may tell a slightly different tale."(17)
Given the lack of written history, we are forced to rely largely on the images we find in popular magazines and cinema to obtain a glimpse of the life and work of these early women technology workers. While these images are sometimes romanticized and filtered through the lens of a patriarchal ideology, they nevertheless give us valuable insights into the work and daily lives of these technological pioneers.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READING:
Melodie Andrews, " 'What The Girls Can Do': The Debate Over the Employment of Women in the Early Telegraph Industry," Essays in Economic and Business History 8 (1990): 109-120.
Shirley Burman, curator, "Women and the American Railroad: 135 Years of Women's Association with the Railroad." (This is a travelling exhibition of photographs documenting the work of women in the railroad industry which has appeared at railroad museums across the U.S.)
William K. Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
Edwin Gabler, The American Telegrapher: A Social History, 1860-1900 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988).
Paul Israel, From Machine Shop to Industrial Laboratory: Telegraphy and the Changing Context of American Invention, 1830-1920 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
Thomas Jepsen, "Women Telegraphers in the Railroad Depot," Railroad History 173 (Autumn 1995): 142-154.
Thomas Jepsen, "Women Telegraph Operators on the Western Frontier," Journal of the West (April 1996): 72-80.
Shirley Tillotson, " 'We may all soon be 'first-class men' ': Gender and skill in Canada's early twentieth century urban telegraph industry," Labour/Le Travail 27 (Spring 1991): 97-125.
1. Frances E. Willard, Occupations for Women (New York: 1897), 132.
2. "Women as Telegraph Operators," Electrical World (June 26, 1886), 296.
3. "The Telegraph," Harper's New Monthly Magazine (August 1873), 332.
4. "The Story of Telegraphy," compiled by Kate B. Carter, from Our Pioneer Heritage (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1961), 561; History of Tooele County (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1961), 100.
5. "The Girl 'Op'," Railroad Stories (September 1935). Photo credit: Shirley Burman, curator, "Women and the American Railroad: 135 Years of Women's Association with the Railroad."
6. "The Girl and Her Trust" is shown with permission of Blackhawk Films/Kino on Video.
7. Telegrapher (January 9, 1875), 9.
8. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "O. Delight Smith's Progressive Era: Labor, Feminism and Reform in the Urban South," from Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, Ed. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 171.
10. "Miss Carrie Pearl Seid, First lady member Sunbury Division, No. 12," The Railroad Telegrapher (August 1907), 1256.
11. "The Story of Telegraphy," 549-550.
12. Correspondence, Elaine Pollock Lundquist, December 10, 1992.
13. The "third trick chief" is the chief operator on the third "trick" or shift, usually from around midnight to 6 a.m. Ma Kiley is suggesting that women operators were identifiable by their "light, quick" sending style, something that the third trick chief's prank seems to disprove.
14. Ma Kiley, "The Bug and I," Part III, Railroad Magazine, June, 1950, 72.
15. "The Story of Telegraphy," 553-5.
16. Shirley Burman, "Women and the American Railroad;" correspondence, William F. Strobridge, Research Associate, Wells Fargo Bank, December 1, 1992; Long Beach, California, Press, August 19, 1924.
17. Ruth Perry and Lisa Greber, "Women and Computers: An Introduction," Signs (Autumn 1990), 85-7.