The History Behind that Soothing Telephone Operator’s Voice

Retro Staff Comments

If you ever dialed a rotary phone, you probably remember hearing a calm, soothing voice when asking for assistance or answering a collect call. While during the 1940s to 1970s there were some male telephone operators, this field was dominated by women. It wasn’t a sexist thing. Research showed that a likeable female voice simply made us happier with our services.

The first female operator was Emma Mills Nutt. She got her start with the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company—also known as Boston Telephone Dispatch Company (BTD)—on September 1, 1878. In January of that year, BTD had started hiring boys as operators (the first being George Willard Croy). Young men had already proved their worth as telegraphy operators, but studies showed that their lack of patience, desire to pull pranks, and foul language was unacceptable when it came to speaking in person.

Customer response to Nutt’s patience and warm voice was quite positive, so BTD replaced the boys with women. Nutt’s sister, Stella, was actually the second woman hired.

Emma & Stella Nutt

Emma (rear) & Stella Nutt work alongside young boys. In the earliest days, female operators wore floor length dresses while they stood for 10+ hours a day. (Source: Wikipedia)


The requirements of a young woman to become an operator were actually quite strict. She could not be married, and had to be between the age of 17 and 26. She had to dress appropriately—looking prim and proper—and she had to be tall enough, with her arms long enough to reach the top of the switchboard. As was standard with many companies of those times, African Americans and Jews were not hired.

Nutt’s initial salary was about $10 per month. The typical wage at the turn of the century was $7 per week.

Nutt later went to work for Alexander Graham Bell. Rumor has it that Nutt had remembered every number in the directory of the New England Telephone Company. She would retire from her career around 1911, having served for more than 30 years.

In 1998, Preferred Voice introduced the first virtual receptionist system, fondly named EMMA.

Nutt also has a special day. Each year, September 1 is Emma M. Nutt Day, and it’s meant to celebrate the world of telephone operators.

Do you remember that calm and soothing voice on the other end when you picked up the phone to dial an exchange or ask for assistance? In a day where the operator has been replaced by technology, don’t you miss them?


Last updated: Sep 01, 2013
Filed under: Retro Planet news Tagged with: phones, technology