Friday, January 06, 2012

The switchboard

This is the kind of telephone everybody had back in the switchboard days.
After I rambled on about growing up with a switchboard in the corner of our house, my husband started asking questions I had difficulty answering.  After all, I was only eleven years old when my parents moved to the city and got regular jobs; my memories of the switchboards in various houses where we lived are spotty, at best.  
Cliff asked if there was a "ring" when someone called Central wanting to talk to someone else.  First I said yes, but after thinking about it, I said, "Wait... no, I don't think so.  A drop dropped, and you stuck a plug in the hole behind the 'drop'.  But surely there was a noise, or how would you know someone wanted to make a call if you were in the other room?"  
I know that makes no sense to my readers, but it was coming back to me, the terms my parents used.  They did indeed call those little things drops, and they called the other things plugs!  I'm sure there were proper names for these items.  I only know what I heard as a child.  
I was lamenting the fact that my mom is no longer around to answer our questions about switchboards when it hit me that there is, indeed, somebody who knows all about the old telephone systems:  My sister, who is sixteen years older than I.  She's a winter Texan, and I needed to call and check in with her anyway.  

This is my sister making noodles over the holidays with her great-granddaughter.
 Maxine informed me that when the drop fell down, there was a buzzing sound that was loud enough to be heard if you were in another room.  (Once she told me that, the sound came back to me!)  Because all the communities my parents served were rural, there weren't a lot of customers.  Maxine said there were busy times of day, but most of the time there wasn't a lot of action at the switchboard.  
"But what about during the night," I said.  "Was that buzzing loud enough to wake my parents from a deep sleep?"  
"Well, the rules were that you didn't make any calls after 10 P.M. unless it was an emergency," she told me.  "When we went to bed we flipped a switch so the switchboard made a loud noise if someone made an emergency call."  
At Eagleville, our last switchboard house, there was a siren on a pole in the yard.  If a house caught fire in town, someone would call my parents at the switchboard and they'd turn on the siren.  Then those "drops" would drop like crazy as people called to see where the fire was so they could go assist in the bucket brigade.  Mother would be plugging in plugs with both hands, stating the location of the fire to each person.
The switchboards my sister remembers were the ones in Iowa; when she was a teenager, she spent a lot of time being "Central" at the switchboard.  She remembers knowing all the customers by the sound of their voices.  Sometimes someone would say to her, "Could you call Mom for me?" without giving any name.  Everybody knew everybody.  
Maxine told me that long distance calls back then were really complicated.  Say I lived in Guss, Iowa, and wanted to call Kansas City:  I'd call Central and give them the phone number of the person I wanted to reach.  The operator would say "OK, I'll try to reach that number" and I would hang up.  When the operator reached the number, she'd call me back and connect me with my party.  
Wow.  Things were a lot more difficult in the old days, weren't they?  
By the way, Maxine tells me the grapefruits in her back yard are extra big and delicious this year.


I'm mostly known as 'MA' said...

The only time I ever saw a telephone like that was at my husbands grandmother's house in the early 1960's. She still had one like that hanging in her entryway. I don't really know if she used it then or just kept it for a keepsake. I do remember having a party line and also remember how wonderful it was to get a private line. How things have changed! Those grapefruit of your sister's sure do sound good.

kcmeesha said...

remember "Sarah, give me shefiff Taylor!" from the Andy Griffith show?

Carolg said...

Loved the story of your parents with the switchboard it brought back memories for me of one of my first office jobs in the UK - the switchboard was similar to the one in your photo and the Operator called the 'drop' things 'Doll's Eyes' !!!

Happy New Year


Helen said...

Glad that your sister remembered more. Somtimes I wish I knew something and then I remember no parents to ask anymore. I have tried asking my uncle who is a couple of years older than me. I don't think he remembers as much as I do. Helen

Donna said...

Meesha, Cliff and I were talking about the Andy Griffith Show this morning, with their wall phone in the kitchen and Sarah the operator.


That buzzing sound your sister talked about with the switchboard REMINDS me of the modern cellphones and the sound it makes when silenced. It buzzes and vibrates. A throwback to the old days. LOL

James Wood said...

Did you know that the cables involved in both DirecTV and cable are still called "drops"? Every since I've been working with cable, I thought that was an odd thing to call a cable, but I guess that's a term that stuck! Of course, nothing actually drops now, but the name stuck.