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When Dayton Learned to Say Hello

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 6, 1921



By Howard Burba


     Here is something H. F. Allen, district manager of the Ohio Bell Telephone company, has been trying to figure out ever since he was a little boy:

     “ Why will people stand in line before a ticket office for hours without complaining about a loss of time, and why will thousands suffer their corns to be trampled as they await the arrival of a belated circus parade, and then want to murder a telephone girl if they don’t happen to get the number they call for within one-half minute after taking down the receiver?”

     Allen has grown gray in the service of the old Central Union Telephone company, and it is largely due to lying awake at night trying to figure out the above problem.  He told me so yesterday, and with a smile that indicated the memory of days when worries were unknown he added:  “It’s too bad the impatient telephone subscriber can’t go back to 1878, when he had only nine chances of getting the wrong number.  You see there were only 10 telephones in Dayton then, and the percentage against him wasn’t as great as it is today when Dayton uses just 20,415 phones.”

     He pointed to a photograph hanging on his office wall—a photographic copy of Dayton’s first telephone directory—and it showed the original 10 subscribers, just as it is shown elsewhere on this page.  That directory, consisting as it did of nothing more than a single sheet of printing six-by-nine inches was produced after the Dayton Bell Telephone Exchanges had been installed at 118 East Third street, in one of the buildings destroyed by fire during the 1913 flood.  It had taken many weeks of tireless work to convince Dayton business men that the city needed an institution of this kind.  The telephone itself was still in the experimental stage and they were “from Missouri” when anyone attempted to point out its future possibilities.

     Finally the ice was broken by 10 citizens who were capable of applying progressive methods to their business enterprises.  Kiefaber & Brothers, fruit and commission men, were first to sign the list of Bell telephone subscribers.  The exchange was to be established directly over their place of business so it was possibly more to encourage an additional tenant in that locality than anything else which led them to head the venture.  They were quickly followed by George L. Phillips, pioneer merchant, who conducted a general store at that time at 29 West Fourth street, on the site of the present Arcade.  Over on East Third street, in the Beckel House, the American Express company had its office.  Learning that the Beckel proposed to distance all rivals by offering the traveling public telephone service in addition to the regular Saturday night bath accommodations, the express people also signed up for what they felt sure was a  “luxury.”

     George F. Rohr, pioneer hardware merchant, had an establishment then at 19 East Third, where now stands the Dayton National bank.  His place was headquarters for rural shoppers, and older residents still recall the cannon stove and cheese-box cuspidors, liberally filled with sawdust, which so delighted the hearts of his male customers.  He signed up for a telephone which would have been designated as “Main 5,” only for the fact that it hadn’t occurred to the telephone company to number its phones.

     At 125 East Third street J. K. McIntire operated a wholesale grocery store—the first business of the kind in all this section.  The original building went out in the fire of 1913, but the firm is still among the foremost in its line in Dayton.  At the same time Mr. McIntire contracted for telephone service, William Sander, who ran a wine house at 136 East third, and whose sons continued the business on the same side of the street, but a square nearer Main, until Ohio “went dry” had a telephone box installed.  Charles A. Phillips had one placed in his store opposite that of his relative, George Phillips, on West Fourth, and J. W. Johnston, pioneer printer, whose name still stands at the head of the concern, paid for his first month’s rental of a telephone by “striking off” the directory.  T. A. Phillips & Son operated a cotton factory at the time, one of the most flourishing industries in all the Miami Valley, and the cotton factory closed the list of ten original Bell telephone subscribers.

     Superintendent Allen points to the stability of Dayton business concerns by calling attention to the fact that six of the ten concerns which signed that original telephone list in 1878 are still a part of the

business life of Dayton.  It also remembers that the first switchboard was able to accommodate but twenty telephones, being of the old battery and hand-bell design.  There were few long-distance lines in those days.  Mails were slow, the telegraph lines were expensive, and everyone had more or less fear of death from electric currents, reported to be as thick along a telephone wire as flies about the proverbial sugar barrel.  So growth was slow, very slow, from the day that first switchboard was installed with its 10 subscribers.

     Four years later, in 1881, there were but 225 subscribers in the entire city of Dayton.  But in that year citizens of the Miami Valley had an excellent example of the merits of a telephone exchange, for long before their newspapers could furnish them details of the assassination of President James A. Garfield they had been received over the Bell telephone.  The growth of the local institution from 1881, as given in five year periods, is interesting to note.  In 1885 there were 495 subscribers attached to the local exchange; there were 760 in 1890, 1013 in 1895, 1955 in 1900, 4094 in 1904, 9003 in 1908, 12,401 in 1913, 15,198 in 1917, and today there are 20,415.

     From a dozen or so calls over the original 10 telephones installed in 1878 the average number has now reached 120,000 daily.  In other words, Dayton uses the telephone 5000 times an hour, every hour in the 24 constituting a day.  Of course these calls are not evenly distributed over that period, but it is easy to determine at just what hours in the day and night your telephone lines are busiest, and that gives you a pretty good understanding of why there must always be on hand at the exchange a sufficient number of operators to carry the service at its peak.

     There are periods of comparative quiet, and periods of nerve-wrecking rush and bustle within the walls of the present exchange at 19 North Ludlow street.  The factories and stores close when the day’s work is done, and throughout the evening hours the burden of calls is not great, easing off gradually as bedtime approaches and the city lays down for a rest.  Operators on duty in the evening hours have little leisure time, however, and even after midnight in a city the size of Dayton enough calls are constantly flashing on the boards to keep quite a force going full tilt.  The telephone girl, patient and uncomplaining, has long since learned that in places like Dayton there are people who apparently never go to bed.

     While calls are lightest from midnight until 6 o’clock in the morning, Dayton begins to sit up and rub the remaining sleep out of her eyes along about 5 a. m.  Then business begins to start up with the hum of street cars and the rattle of trucks.  As trading starts and continues to grow through out the day, the telephone calls grow apace. “I’ll call you first thing in the morning,” said Dayton when she went to bed, and when morning comes she keeps her promise.

     In the single hour between 9 o’clock and 10 o’clock in the morning the peak load is reached at “central.”  During that hour more calls are made to business houses, especially groceries and provision stores, than during any other hour in the day.  Business men, too, seem to have hit upon 9 o’clock as a favorite hour for being in their offices when the telephone rings, and the public generally is aware of this.  The average business man has had his breakfast, has smoked his morning cigar and gone over his morning mail—he is ready to talk business.  In this busiest hour it is estimated that one-twelfth of all calls coming in during the day are handled at “central.”

     The lunch hour draws near as 10 o’clock is passed and calls ease down for a spell.  Right at the noon hour they show a slight decline—Dayton has postponed many of her calls until the afternoon hours.  Then comes the period when telephone operators work through a steady grind, with little variation from day to day.  Unless there is something unusual going on, the afternoon hours pass with about the same amount of telephoning each day.  Inclement weather, however, will serve to boost them up a bit.  Dayton is calling up and apologizing and making her dates for the morrow.  Then, too, it is so much easier to call the store or the grocery for what you want than it is to go out in the rain, and that makes a bad day, from the weather man’s viewpoint, a busy day with the telephone girl.

     Another busy season is experienced between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 p. m., an hour devoted principally to social conversation.  Dayton has been to her club, or the matinee, or has seen “just the cutest new gown in the world in Blank’s window,” and she wants to tell her dearest friend about it. Incidentally, Charlie wants to know of Mabel if she’s “going to have anything on this evening.”

     Telephone operators are wise enough not to attempt in the morning a prediction of what the day will bring forth.  Everything may be running smoothly and calls may be clicking along with the regularity of a Swiss watch.  Suddenly something breaks loose somewhere—always a hundred times worse in the first report than it afterwards proves to be and the hands of the operator begin to fly about the board as she manipulates the tiny cords and plugs, her lips are in constant motion as she utters the two words most familiar to her—“Number.  Please”—and out in the city there is a perfect jingle of telephone bells.  Dayton learns just what it was, where it was, and how good or how bad it was—and then goes about her business until the voice of the newsie is heard in the streets.

     Supt. Allen has, like most all of us, a pet hobby.  It is making scrap-books.  He has album after album filled with photographs and kodak prints, and he has books galore for clippings and interesting letters. As he took from the wall of his office the photograph of the first telephone directory issued in Dayton two of his operators, stylishly dressed, smiling and happy, were leaving the building.  Outside it was blowing a gale and snow was flying.  He glanced at them with a fatherly pride as they stepped into the street, paused for a moment.

     “I suppose if it was 102 in the shade and you and I were sweating and swearing because our B. V. D.’s were sticking to us, they’d have their furs and their goloshes on,” he said, as he watched them cross the street.  “But there they go, out into the snow, dressed as though they were out for a walk in Los Angeles.  Dog-gone if styles don’t change fast.  And just as equipment in our telephone exchange has shifted with the times, so have the fashions followed by our telephone girls.  We once had the little old ten-subscriber switch-board—and the operator wore a train to her dress and you could see her ears.  Today we’ve got a modern switch-board serving over 15,000 subscribers, and she modernized her garb to short skirts and furs in the summertime.”

     Here he took from the wall and the photograph which we are reproducing on this page, just to show how rapidly styles have changed.  The photograph was made in front of the present exchange on North Ludlow street.

     “Operators in those days were just as rapid in their work and just as capable as they now are,” explained Allen as he handed over the picture, “they just changed styles as the telephone business changed, that’s all.

     “Back in ’78 they thought that little old ten-party exchange was as pretty a piece of mechanism as their eyes ever rested upon—and they looked at leg-o’-mutton sleeves in the same light.  Today, after a lapse of forty-three years, we see a wonderful change, and we feel sure the height of perfection is about reached with a switch-board that carries 120,000 calls each 24 hours, and a telephone operator who carries her bon-bons in a box instead of a paper sack and drives home in her own car.  I’d hate to attempt a prediction as to what a modern switch-board will look like forty-three years from today.

     “Likewise I’d hate equally as much to predict what the operators will be wearing—or what they’ll not be wearing.”