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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Party Line: 1921

Party Line: 1921

January 1921. Washington, D.C. "National Woman's Party switchboard." If you can ignore the mold and the fingerprints, there are a number of interesting details here. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size.

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I showed this photo to the (25-year old) receptionist at my workplace.

She has, on her desk, a small phone console that has 11 incoming lines and capability for PA; a computer monitor/keyboard/wireless mouse, the PC being slaved to the company's server upstairs; a charger for her cell phone; a small digital camera for taking ID photos; a flip-over desk calendar and ... well, that's about it.

Naturally the office is air-conditioned (no fan required).

[That's a heater in our photo. - Dave]

She could not believe this photo, particularly when I pointed out that even well into the 1960s many offices were using similar switchboards.

One of her more poignant questions related to how the operator knew which socket to stick the plug in!

Youth -- what would be do without it?!


The typeface on those signs is much like one often seen in do-it-yourself rubber stamp sets, a common office appurtenance in days gone by. In fact, it's almost identical (though larger) to that of an ancient set I found among the relics in our post office supply room. We never used it, but I couldn't just throw it away. Anyway, I'd been a rubber stamp freak since I was a kid.


The printed labels for the "incoming" and "outgoing" boxes struck me as odd. Today it takes a few seconds to pick a fancy font and print an inbox label. But did she have a friend with a letterpress that she got to make these? They look to just be on some sort of paper and not *that* super fancy. Why weren't they just handwritten?

(Also interested to know the story behind the belt in the cubby!)

[Office supplies in the business district were only as far as the corner stationer. Although it would not have been uncommon for a national organization of this size to have had its own print shop. - Dave]

Those Headphones

In the 1930s & 40s the NYC Board Of Education would send what they called an audiologist to the elementary schools with some prehistoric sound equipment. It consisted of a turntable, an amplifier and some sort of switching device that could handle about 30 sets of headphones. We sat at our desks, at which we had a large printed form and one of those headphone sets. The audiologist told us that she would start the record and we would hear a voice reciting numbers. The voice would say "now write the number that you hear in the first column." The voice would then say a number like "21" and this would continue with a series of numbers instructing us to write that number in the next column, etc. However the voice volume kept getting lower until it was inaudible, this was how they tested for hearing loss. All the students were asked to bring a sharp pencil with them for the test. I guess today the kids may or may not have a sharp pencil with them but many of them have headphones.


I believe those two boxes on the wall to the right of the switchboard are telegraph messenger callboxes. The two telegraph rate books lead me to that conclusion. Looks like Postal Telegraph and Western Union. The boxes were wired to a central office.

If a customer had a telegram to send, they would twist the knob, which was spring loaded, and the box would send out a series of dots and dashes. Each location had a unique identifier assigned.

In the central office a recorder with a pen nib and inkwell would record the dots and dashes on a moving strip of paper. The operator would cross reference the code to a particular customer and dispatch a messenger to pick up the telegram to be sent. This saved the customer the time or interruption of making a telephone call to request a messenger.

Western Union was still using these at a few places in the early '60s.

Phone books

The "Corby Cake books" are telephone directories. The old phone books had advertising on every blank space, including the spine. The spine would be prime space considering that it would be seen at all times.

I have some old phone books where every blank space is taken up with advertising., including around the edges of all the pages.

Corby eventually sold out to Wonderbread.

They have images of the phone books here but I don;t have a premium account.

TRS plugs

The plugs at the switchboard look like type-310 TRS ("tip-ring-sleeve") connectors, still in widespread use (along with the corresponding jackfields) in telephony applications some 90 years later. They differ a bit from the audiophile's TRS plugs by being slightly "necked" at the sleeve and tip, and are usually bare brass rather than nickel-plate.

re: Moldy observations

The paper on the light bulb, perhaps it is asbestos?

Those ACL Calendars

Were ubiquitous around the South and East for a long time. I was on the mailing list for one during my childhood and early teens, until they stopped producing that version, around 1970, and went to a poster-style adapted from the L&N.

Re: Corby Connection

More about the Corby bakery, located on Georgia Avenue in Shaw, can be found here.

Telegraph Call Boxes

On the operator's right are little boxes for summoning a messenger from a telegraph company, each box with a company rate sheet hanging from it. Turn the handle on the box, a bell rings in the local branch of the telegraph company, and a boy runs to your office to collect your message.

The top box is for Postal Telegraph. The lower box I'm guessing is for Western Union (I can't zoom in properly to see what's written on the rate card). The box itself has the name of the American District Telegraph company, which started off in the 1870s as a local messenger/fire alarm/security service, but I think ended up doing a lot of the local deliveries for Western Union. ADT continues today in the burglar alarm business.

Something else that's interesting about the presence of these boxes. By the 1940s at least, and probably before that, you could send a telegram by just phoning Western Union, and the charge would be added to your phone bill. That would presumably have been the easiest and quickest method for a company switchboard operator to send a telegram.

Not Too Sharp

Only a left handed dyslexic would be comfortable sharpening pencils with that pencil sharpener.

Re: Corby Connection

Ah, of course. Rather than starting with traditional archival sources, you'd think I'd know by now to start by searching the site first!

Great legs!

She sits on an amazing "Colonial Revival" duck-footed desk chair. The little desk has great Empire legs too. But the best of all, the electric space heater plugged into the ceramic ceiling fixture! No wonder she's wearing those "high-top" shoes -- the better to run with when the fire starts.

The Corby Connection

The stack of four books touting "Corby Bread--100% Pure--Corby Cake" caught my eye. I found a couple of advertisements for "Corby Bread" in Washington D.C., papers, though I don't know if it's the same Corby Bread.

[More on the Corby Baking Company in these Shorpy posts. There's an ad or two in the comments. - Dave]

Jan 1921-2011

The calendar for January 2011 was the same as January 1921. What a firetrap this room was!

The switchboard

The switchboard looks remarkably similar to the Western Electric 551 that graces my dining room, which was built in 1941. The only differences are in the wood side panels and trim. All the working parts are identical.

The phone company didn't update that product until 1955.

Look at the calendar on the wall

On Wednesday, January 26, 2011, my daughter and son-in-law presented me with a new grandson. I just noticed that in 1921, January 26 was a Wednesday also, leading me to believe that we have the same calendar this year as the one from 1921. Quite a coinkydink but then I am easily amused. Carry on.

Moldy observations

Hanging electrical fixture: cloth or paper, presumably wrapped around a bare, clear light bulb, again presumably to soften the harsh light thereof?

Leather strap in bottom right separation of cubbyhole case is similar to those used by letter carriers to strap up bundles of mail, though now they're nylon.

Phone jack plugs: familiar to any hi-fi bug from the 50s-on.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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