“Number, Please”

Switchboard Telephone Operators

Left to right: Nancy Peters, Shirley Whitehead, Maxime VonShade Clark, Jennie Clarke, Ellen “Midge” Matoes Wright, Eva VonShade, Genevieve Matoes Currie, Bess Sheehan, Millie Cullen, Harriet Beers, Dorothy Matoes Nunes. Photo taken in the Beers house #23

Between 1914 and 1964, the local telephone switchboard operators routed calls in and out of Jamestown. 

Telephone service began in Jamestown on May 16, 1894, when Walter Wright, the Newport Telephone Company agent, called Charles E. Weeden at the Thorndike Hotel to check the circuit. The company had laid a cable across the bay to a terminus at Weeden Lane. At that time callers had their calls routed through Newport; however, in 1901 there were enough telephones in use during the summer that a switchboard was installed in the Gardner House.

Finally, in the winter of 1914-1915, the telephone company installed a Jamestown switchboard to be manned year-round by local operators. At first, the switchboard was housed in the Gardner House. Then in 1922, the company bought the hardware store located at Narragansett Avenue and Coronado Street and installed a five-position switchboard. Normally, two operators would be on duty, but at busy times in the summer all positions would be filled and the callers were greeted with, “Number, please.”

These operators were also an informal branch of the town’s mostly volunteer public safety network. Before the dial tone phone service was installed in 1964, the police station was only manned from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.; therefore, the department relied on the telephone operators to take calls (emergency and routine). For a period of 17 hours a day, the telephone operators handled police calls, rerouted fire calls, and located ambulance service volunteers.

Three Generations of Telephone Operators: Shirley A. Whitehead (daughter, 12 years of service), Harriet E. Beers (mother, 28 years of service), and Terri Whitehead (granddaughter – just completed second summer)

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