'Remember When, Chattanooga?' Do you know what these women are doing?

Chattanooga News-Free Press archive photo via ChattanoogaHistory.com / This photograph was taken by newspaper photographer Delmont Wilson in 1947 and shows telephone operators in Chattanooga back at work after a five-week work stoppage.

In mid-20th century America, hundreds of thousands of telephone operators — most of them women — kept the nation plugged in.

The accompanying photo from May 1947 shows telephone operators at work in Chattanooga after a work stoppage that disrupted long-distance service for five weeks.

Today's younger Americans may not remember a time with operator assistance was a standard part of telecommunications — especially long-distance calls.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of telephone operators peaked in the 1970s in the United States at about 420,000. In recent years, there are about 4,000 operators providing land-to-land customers with directory assistance, according to the bureau.

The photo shown here was part of a front-page report in the Chattanooga News-Free Press on May 14, 1947.

"More than 300 local telephone workers returned to their jobs with the removal of picket lines from the main telephone building," the newspaper reported. "Members of the Southern Federation of Telephone Workers ironed out their differences with Southern Bell several days ago, but until today had honored the picket lines of (striking) equipment workers."

Normal phone service was restored for the first time in 35 days, according to the News-Free Press.

The caption on the photo noted "the voice with a smile" was back at work, parroting a phone company slogan from the 1930s to the 1950s. The photo shows an array of "long-distance operators and supervisors," according to the newspaper.

According to a 2017 article in Smithsonian magazine, "At the start of the 20th century, 80 percent of all telephone operators were women."

The photo was taken by News-Free Press photographer Delmont Wilson and appears as part of a collection of old newspaper photos at ChattanoogaHistory.com.

See previous articles in the series at ChattanoogaHistory.com and follow the "Remember When, Chattanooga?" public group on Facebook.


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Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.