History of the Telephone in D.C.

We suspect that most GoDCers would find this subject fascinating, much like we do. The little device, which now fits in our pocket and controls our life, dates back to the decade following the Civil War. Can you imagine a time when calling on someone actually meant going to their place of residence?

One of the more amusing articles we came across detailed the history of the first telephone directory in D.C. Evidently, it was printed in 1878 and was a single sheet of paper, listing 187 phone lines with numbers starting in the single digits. When you reached the operator and asked for “Number 1,” the would connect you to the White House, and “Number 2” would connect you with the U.S. Senate. Try calling the operator now for “Number 1.”

Washington, D.C., circa 1919. "Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. switchboards." Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative.
Washington, D.C., circa 1919. “Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. switchboards.” Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative.

A Washington Post article from December 16th, 1928 celebrated the 50th anniversary of telephones in D.C. with a detailed history of its origins. The article mentions that there were 150,000 phones in the city, approximately one for every 3.4 people.

The origin of the telephone in Washington came with the installation of a private telephone line between the office of the chief signal officer of the Army and Fort Whipple, not Fort Myer, Virginia, in October, 1877, just eighteen months after Prof. Alexander Graham Bell had received the patent on his telephone.

The line was connected so that the signal officer or his aids could talk to officers and their aids at the fort across the river. This was the first Bell telephone line established in the District of Columbia. It was installed by the late George C. Maynard, a telegraphist and electrician, who obtained a license as agent of the Bell Telephone Company in Washington and vicinity.

Bell's first commercial telephone (1877)
Bell’s first commercial telephone (1877)

It continued by mentioning the first telephone exchange had been installed at New Haven, Connecticut and a push was made to get a critical mass of people signed up for service in Washington to warrant their own exchange. The list of initial customers was listed in the article as well, the telephone pioneers of D.C.

The subscription price, which will cover all charges for use of the necessary instruments, wires, &c., will not exceed $4 per month.

The names affixed to the list were R. Beresford, 523 Seventh street northwest; Washington Nailor, 1326 E street; W. W. Johnston, M. D., 1307 F street northwest; T. E. Chidister, Ph. D., Ninth and H streets; A. M. Gibson, 1342 Corcoran street; N. V. Jeffries, McPherson Square; R. G. and E. L. Ingersoll, 1417 G street; Middleton & Company, 1427 F street northwest; James & Saville, 342 D street, and Curtis, Earle & Burdette, 700 Ninth street.

That’s a total of ten lines to start … not that many people to call. The switchboard was established in December 1878 with a maximum capacity of 24 lines in a first floor room of 1423 G street northwest. The first operator of the switchboard was Burnet L. Nevius. By 1881, women were being employed as operators, with the first being Miss Mary Lloyd (she later married and took the name Newhall).

By the summer of 1886, there were 1,174 telephone lines listed in the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.’s register of customers. It took almost ten more years to reach the 2,000 mark by January 1897.

We did some more digging for early first-hand accounts of the telephone in D.C. and came across special correspondence from Washington in the Baltimore Sun. This was from December 21st, 1877.

A telephone was placed to-day at the police headquarters on Louisiana avenue, connecting with the Insane Asylum, via the police stations at South Washington and the navy-yard. Much interest was shown, and the telephone was kept busily at work, an impromptu concert having been gotten up at one of the stations for transmission to the headquarters. The telephones work admirably, conversation being carried on between the stations readily. The line from the Insane Asylum runs over land and under the river, being 3 miles in length. The first being so successful the police board will soon use the telephones in all of the stations, discarding the old-fashioned or “sewing machine” telegraphic instruments. There are now nine telephones in use in this city, and it is thought that within a year their number will be considerably increased.

It must have been a mind-blowing experience to use a telephone for the first time. Somehow, magically, you were able to speak to another person, while they were several miles away. What a bizarre and miraculous invention created by Alexander Graham Bell.

First Capitol telephone operator still on job. Washington, D.C., July 30. When Miss Harriot Daley was appointed telephone operator at the United States Capitol in 1898 there were only 51 stations on the switchboard. Today Miss Daley is Chief Operator and supervises a staff of 37 operators as they answer calls from 1200 extensions. The picture above shows the present switchboard with Miss Daley still on the job, 7/30/37
First Capitol telephone operator still on job. Washington, D.C., July 30. When Miss Harriot Daley was appointed telephone operator at the United States Capitol in 1898 there were only 51 stations on the switchboard. Today Miss Daley is Chief Operator and supervises a staff of 37 operators as they answer calls from 1200 extensions. The picture above shows the present switchboard with Miss Daley still on the job, 7/30/37

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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This is one of the more interesting personal stories that we’ve uncovered. For a while …

  • My mother came to DC during WW2 from a small coal town Pennsylvania when she graduated from high school. She worked for C&P downtown, first as an operator then as a supervisor. She said that even though no one from the public could see them, the operators had a strict dress code. If you showed up without gloves and a hat on and in a proper dress, you were sent home from work. Mom also said that the supervisors would make comments about the operators’ weight and if you gained a few pounds you were sent to the on-site doctor who would prescribe diet pills. She said the diet pills were basically speed.

    Apparently, it was a rite of passage for the more experienced operators to play a joke on the new girls, especially if the new girls were sheltered. The new girl was told to listen in on a call…they could slide the plug in very slowly and the people on the phone wouldn’t know…and it always turned out to be a phone sex call between one of a few Congressmen or businessmen and their mistresses. She also talked about getting desperate calls from people in the middle of the night who had no one else to talk to but the telephone operator. After talking to them, Mom would connect them to the rectory of St Patrick’s Catholic Church, there on 10th St NW near Chinatown.

    Mom worked for C&P until 1962 when she was about to have me and said it was one of the companies of that time in which a woman could work and do well for herself.

    • Thanks for sharing this great story Teresa.

    • Patricia Baker

      I forgot to mention that my mom had also been a C & P operator in the 40s. She said the the same thing about the strict atmosphere. Even in the 70s it was still very regimented. Excellent training but at your position at the switchboard, the spokes of your chair were to face a certain way and you were expected to have a specific type pencil in hand at all times even as you were doing other things. It was called “planing your pencil”. It did prove to be efficient. The strict dress code had been abandoned by the 70s.

    • Jessica Ferrer

      Fascinating look back in the day Terry…Thank You!

  • kevinmcd

    It’s no phone network, but the pneumatic tubes in the Pentagon seem like an equally impressive communications system (http://life.time.com/history/building-the-pentagon-rare-photos/#18)

  • Patricia Baker

    Very interesting. I began my career in telecommunications at C & P in 1972. The photos are great as is the info. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks.

  • craigsli

    did the operator floor supervisor ever wear roller-skates or was that just in some places?