Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday July 17, 2004 

Postcard 253: The Telephone Girls of 1911

A scrapbook brought to light by Holly Hotchkiss provides a 1911 image of phone operators with 
headsets and chest-mount microphones ready for the switchboard. The period hand-crank phone 
hangs in the author’s home, and a 1910 coal ad shows two phone numbers, highlighted here for emphasis.


By Bob Hibbs


The telephone era began in Iowa City in 1881 when the first “Central” plugged her headset and microphone into a huge box of equipment connections and said “number please.”

Luella DeWolf made that first request seated at a console with dozens of possible connecting lines located in a corner of the Western Union Telegraph office at 110 E. Washington St. managed by Frank Moffitt. The telegraph company continued there until about 1975.

She then inserted a cable connected to the caller into a slot connected to the phone being called. She was the vanguard of literally hundreds of mostly women hired through the years to make the connection for each telephone call.  An accompanying image identifies a few of them as Alta Harman, Nelle Cooney, Bertha DeFord, Bertha Dobson and Edna Arnett.

They even served as the “911” of their era in summoning emergency assistance – 24 hours daily year around.

During a 1918 worldwide flu epidemic, telephone operators called every Iowa City home soliciting blankets for emergency hospitals set up in the Elks Clubhouse then downtown, the Masonic Temple and UI buildings.

The campus was put under marshal law. The epidemic eventually claimed 38 lives in Iowa City, among 6,543 who died in Iowa, more than 500,000 in the U.S. and 20 million worldwide.

Iowa City Telephone Co. began with 35 phones on March 7, 1881, according to a June 1943 article in the State Historical Society’s Palimpsest magazine. The local Republican newspaper reported 1,000 calls made during the first month.

The newspaper reported new phone numbers, including Whetstone drug 70, Iowa City Glass Co. 63 and Shrader drug 64. It advised readers to add numbers to their telephone list.

The first phone on the University of Iowa campus was installed in the president’s office in Old Capitol in 1889, reports Margaret Keyes in her 1988 Old Capitol history. It was another 15 years before the first inside toilets were installed in Old Cap, just a year before additional phones were installed throughout the structure in 1905.

A second phone company headed by A.T. Averill, with Sam Mercer as vice president, was initiated in 1900 as Johnson County Telephone Co. with separate wires and poles running along the same streets as served the older phone company.

Rates for the new company were $1.50 monthly for a private line, $1 for a party line, and $2.50 for a business phone. The “party line” meant that it served more than one phone, and anyone on the line could – and did – listen in on calls to anyone else on that line.

Advertisers often listed two phone numbers in their advertisements. Iowa City Telephone used two and three digits followed by a letter, as 12J; while Johnson County typically used three numeric digits, as in 247.

The companies were merged in 1910 under the name Iowa City Telephone Co. It had a new building built by paint store owner Byron Stillwell at 227 E. Washington St., which is the second storefront east of where the Englert Theatre would be built two years later. The author recalls a childhood home number as “Green 198.”

The first local long distance system was installed by AT&T in 1898. Absorbed by the huge national Bell Telephone system, local phone operations were moved in 1932 into a tall building at the corner of Burlington and Linn streets, which still houses automated phone equipment.

That move was accompanied by initiation of rotary dial service locally, which eliminated the need for operator assistance on most local calls.

Now, cell phones bring another innovation which moves another step from the personal touch of a pleasant voice asking: “number please.”

Next Saturday: Civil War marked Iowa City and UI.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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