When the telephone came to the office

“Private calls to employees are not allowed, since the number of telephone lines is extremely limited. Private calls may be made in the telephone booth in the main lobby before and after office hours and during lunch hour.”

This admonishment to employees was issued by a Stockholm insurance company in 1937. The telephone had been adopted rapidly during the first decades of the 1900s, particularly in banks and private sales companies, but it was not self-evident that every workplace had its own phone. A woman who had worked her entire professional life in the insurance company’s secretarial pool still only had access to an intercom as late as the 1980s. A personal telephone long remained a reflection of a hierarchical office environment in which the difference between the highest manager and the youngest stenographer was very great.

The office world’s managers and most senior executives, however, were offered a steady stream of new telecommunications tools. Ericsson conducted intensive advertising campaigns during the late 1930s and early 1940s in which the recurring theme was “Save money and time.”

“A modern office,” according to the advertising campaigns from 1945, should not only have a telephone exchange for incoming and outgoing calls, but a local telephone system for “communication between departments,” and an intercom with a loudspeaker “so that supervisors could always contact employees directly.” Furthermore, “the efficient office” should preferably be equipped with a paging system that used various combinations of blinking lights to summon the appropriate person within the company. Lights indicating “in,” “out” or “busy” prevented the boss from being disturbed when he wished to be left alone. A special signal to summon a messenger could also be sent directly to the mailroom.

Several different types of telephones on the boss’ desk were said to reduce traffic in the corridors. “Are you paying valuable employees to run errands?” or “Why run when you can call?” read the advertisements for the so-called department telephones. According to the ads, even an intercom, “a telephone for supervisors that leaves both hands free during calls,” eliminated unnecessary trips between offices, which at this time were located along long straight corridors.

Employees who were definitely not running through the corridors were the switchboard operators who had sedentary jobs in the true sense. Local telephone exchanges with cords, called line selectors, were found in many offices up through the 1970s, at which time automatic exchanges began to make their impact. At the Stockholm insurance company mentioned above, large telephone devices were used during the 1930s that had a kind of wheel that was rotated for incoming and outgoing calls. “Incoming call on two,” announced the switchboard operator, before connecting the call with a cord, while the person who wished to make an outgoing call requested “Give me a line.” In the next stage of development, the switchboard operator still answered when outgoing calls were made, while incoming calls were connected directly.

As late as the early 1950s, the insurance company still printed in the telephone book that private calls to its employees were forbidden. By that time, there were telephones in nearly every office, but management considered that employees were “taking liberties.” During the 1930s and 1940s, there were so few telephones and office workers were so subservient that official regulations in writing were hardly necessary. During the economic upturn during World War II and the resulting shortage of workers, however, employees became more aware of their worth and even dared to make jokes about the ban in the comical sketches at company parties.

Many female office workers (who were often the ones without a phone) also devised various strategies to enable them to make telephone calls at work without having a phone of their own. Going down to the phone booth in the lobby several floors below on their lunch hours was considered too much bother. Instead, they simply snuck into the boss’ office when he was in a meeting or out to lunch. Sneaking through the corridors became common practice. How strictly the ban on personal calls was followed also depended on who the department supervisor was. The stricter the boss, the more essential it was to devise counter-strategies. Some bosses allowed personal calls “if they were kept short,” but the caller also ran the risk of having the boss listen in on the call.

Author: Birgitta Conradson

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