Between 1876 and 1915, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone lines went from reaching just 100 feet, to over 3,400 miles. The first call between Bell and Watson merely spanned adjacent rooms; while their call in 1915 spanned New York to San Francisco. All across the country, in nearly every town, were switchboard operators, connecting calls between people like Bell and Watson. Instead of taking days or weeks to send letters, people were connected almost instantly. By 1915, switchboard operators were connecting nearly 26 million telephone calls per day, between 10 million telephones.
The first telephone in Spokane was installed by Thomas Elsom in 1886. By the turn of the century, telephone offices started opening in all the small towns throughout the region. Telephone installation followed along after the railroad lines all over Eastern Washington.
Elsom supervised the installation of Cheney’s first telephone service in 1898. At its installation, the Cheney telephone company had only 15 customers. In the early years of the service the switchboard was run by E. B. Hendricks out of his own home. The company eventually moved it’s operations into the basement of the Security National Bank building at 424 First Street.
In the early days of the telephone, the majority of switchboard operators were men. However, by the mid nineteen teens, the majority flipped, and switchboards were operated predominantly by women. Women replaced men in switchboard operation mainly because women were much cheaper to employ, as women were paid only half of what men were paid as operators. Even though they were not the majority at the outset, women did still play a large role in the pioneering of telecommunication systems. Especially within small towns and rural areas, women had many responsibilities within the operations of telephone offices. Switchboard operator, Kate Bailey, recounted in a 1951 newspaper article what it was like to run the switchboard in Cashmere, Washington during a blizzard in 1903. Bailey said that “during this time, the telephone line was the one sure link with the outside world. Mail was uncertain, and only letters were brought in the first week or two after the storm.”
Telecommunications and the switchboard were a force that brought women together. Not only did it create opportunities for women to take leading roles in the work force, but groups like the Audion Club and the Telephone Pioneers Association created a community for female employees and the wives of male employees. Retirees that had committed up to 40 years of service to the switchboard still found themselves amongst friends with the telephone company. It was not just a career, it was a family.