Kitty the Telephone Girl (and other working women in early cinema

Here’s the text of a talk I gave at the fabulous Bo’ness Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (‘Hipfest’) which happens every year. It’s a great few days of celebrating silent films in Scotland and across the world. Highly recommeded! Here’s their website 

I was asked to select and introduce some clips from films held in the regional and national film archives showing women’s work in the early C20th. I had a great time selecting clips from various sources, which I’ve linked to here – in almost every case you can follow the link and watch the film complete, although I only showed brief clips in my talk.

I started by singing a song though! Bit nerve-wracking. I often use this song in teaching  – I haul my gramophone down to the lecture theatre from my office and play this record of Ted Yorke on the THE WINNER label singing it, rather than actually attempting it myself. However at Hippfest I actually stood up and sang, accompanied by Mike Nolan at the piano. I’m pleased to say by the second chorus the audience joined in, probably because they couldn’t bare to hear my reedy voice any longer. I’m grateful to Neil Brand for the assistance rehearsing my one and only moment of musical performance.


Kitty the Telephone Girl was introduced to British audiences in the musical show The Marriage Market which opened at Daly’s theatre in London in 1913, starring Gertie Millar. I had hoped to show you a lovely picture of Gertie clutching a telephone receiver, but it turns out that the show wasn’t about a Modern Miss working in a West End telephone exchange at all. It was set in California during the Gold Rush, and the song was unrelated to the plot in any way, as was the style of musicals in those days. So here’s Gertie in her cowgirl outfit.


Nevertheless. I do think the song is really fascinating in the way that it encapsulates a lot of the ideas that circulated about working women during the early twentieth century. Notice how the lyrics revolve around the paradox of a woman who chooses work over romance – Johnny’s entire courtship strategy is to point out to her how inappropriate this is. She’s wasting her time with her lips pressed (or ‘close’ in the Yorke recording) to the telephone, when they should be pressed to his. His courtship is basically office harassment – he constantly relates to her only on a romantic or sexual level, while she – fending him off – insists on her professionalism ‘I’m on business here!’

Not just that, but Kitty’s work at the telephone exchange makes her a particularly up-to-date phenomenon – it is a new technology that has enabled her employment, and she in turn is a particularly modern kind of girl – a ‘new woman’ or ‘flapper’. Importantly she is young. As a respectable middle-class woman, her experience of paid employment and the independence it brings can only happen within the specific window between leaving home and getting married. The London Telephone exchange only employed unmarried women – as soon as you announced your intention to marry, you were paid off and let go. This was standard practice across a range of professions – my grandmother suffered the same fate at the hands of the Manchester Tax Inspector’s office when she married in 1935, so Johnny’s offer of marriage in the song is also literally a demand that Kitty give up her job.

Telephone operators had been predominantly women ever since Emily Nutt, the first female operator, picked up the phone in Boston in 1878. Nutt had been brought in to replace the teenage boys who had previously done the job. The boys were found to be unsuitable because they spent their time joking with each other, and didn’t scruple about being rude and talking back to customers. The soothing voice of a female operator was deemed to be more popular with customers, and women were thought to be more polite, friendly and efficient – to be better at customer service basically. They also didn’t have to be paid as much.[1] By 1911 the ‘Hello Girl’ was a conspicuous feature of modern life and the tension between customer service professionalism and ‘flirtation’ was central to the ways in which she was represented in fiction and in reality. Torn between romance and her professional responsibilities, she (and her counterpart, the telegraph operator) is the central figure in a large number of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph films of this period including The Lonedale Operator (1911), A Girl and Her Trust (1912), and The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913). Newspaper reports attest to the difficulties both the women and their employers had in negotiating people like the ‘Johnny’ in the song. In 1912 The Gloucester Echo told readers of the rules put in place by the Chicago exchange for their telephone girls:

‘… a telephone girl has nothing to do but work, which means that she must talk business only all the time she is at the switchboard.’ [The company] ‘prohibited the wearing of “peekaboo” blouses, fussy clothes, hair-puffs etc… Now comes an order that forbids the central girl from flirting on the wires. The company also put into effect […] a series of phrases for the use of operators, and no others can be used. The famous ‘Hello’ girl is gone. Her place has been taken by the ‘operator’. Any lovesick person is switched on to the chief operator, who is the official ‘chill’ of the company. It is her business to be an icicle…’[2]

A year later the Dundee Courier reported that this new attitude had spread to the UK, and that the ‘Hello Girl’ was ‘Now “Civil”’

You must not send the telephone girl at your exchange a box of chocolates this year; if you do it will be sent back to you. The telephone girl is now a civil servant… and she mustn’t receive a Christmas box as if she were a postman…[3]

As in the film fictions, the telephone girl could use her position for criminal purposes – as in a 1913 scandal in Paris where operators were found to have taken bribes in order to let men listen in to the phone conversations of their business rivals. Equally she could be the instrument of justice – such as Dorothy Leach of Birmingham who in 1911 recognised the voice of a caller as one who had previously assaulted her, and kept him on the line until the police could be dispatched to the call box he was using.[4]

Telephone ‘girls’ then, epitomised ‘new’ working women who emerged at the turn of the century, and the various anxieties which circulated around them. I will return to such women later. But of course such ‘new’ women were by no means the first women to work.

Domestic Labour and the Factory Gate

Women have always worked. Accounts of the changes in women’s experience in the early C20th often gloss that fact. What they really focus on is paid work rather than domestic labour, and paid work done by middle class women. But working class women have always worked, and have often been paid to do the domestic labour of wealthier folk.


Mary Jane’s Mishap, from 1903, shows one of any number of maids, nannies and other domestic servants who feature in early British films. Laura Bayley as the eponymous maid has great fun, although she does suffer the consequences of her decision to light the kitchen fire with paraffin. This isn’t the morality tale about lazy domestic servants that it might at first appear though. Mary Jane has the last laugh.

Here’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advert from 1935. It’s for the County Laundry in Alloa. ‘Laundry leaves her lots of leisure, makes her housework such pleasure’ it promises potential customers in the opening intertitle, although what it shows isn’t the leisure enjoyed by the customer, but the labour of the laundresses. I don’t know if the brief shot of the women working in the laundry which follows is actually of the laundry itself, or whether it is a stock shot. Perhaps someone here might recognise it.

Alloa Adverts (1935)

The next two clips are ‘factory gate films’ – a genre many people will know through the Lumiere’s film of ‘workers leaving the factory’. The first example is from the Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland. It shows workers leaving the Cambertown Jute mill in Dundee in 1912, and was filmed by the manager of the local picture house there. I like it because it gives a reasonable sense of the proportions of men and women working in the mill, and also gives an excellent flavour of the atmosphere of ‘knocking off’ time.

A Glimpse of the Cambertown Works (1912) 

The next film is later – from 1931 and actually comes as the conclusion of a longer film which delineates the various industrial processes involved in making lightbulbs at the CEAG Light Bulb Factory in Barnsley. This is the last shot, but it offers a similar impression of a workplace populated by roughly equal numbers of men and women. It is held by the Yorkshire Film Archive. Notice how the women walk arm in arm out of the factory, only splitting off when they reach the camera and turn aside.

CEAG Light Bulb Factory, Barnsley (1931) – (Clip – 5.45-6.19 – factory gate footage)

Buffer Girls

2303 Rothenstein

Large numbers of factory women like this, often working the same industry and role, often took on a particular symbolic status either for their trade, or for the wider area. Here is a good example from Sheffield. These are ‘buffer girls’. The painting is by William Rothenstein from 1919 (it’s held at the Museums Sheffield). These ‘buffer girls’ worked in the cutlery industry in Sheffield, literally ‘buffering’ the knives to give them their ‘mirror polished’ finish. We know the names of these two women – they are Maggie Herrick and Jane Gill. ‘Buffering’ was apparently filthy work, and the women covered themselves with headscarfs, aprons and brown paper as protection against the muck which flew off the metal. Here’s a 1928 film of the CJ & Co Factory, Sheffield which shows them in action. It’s held in the Yorkshire Film Archive

CJ & Co Cutlery, Sheffield (1928) (Clip 14.22-18.40 – Handle polishing, buffering and packing…)

Here’s another clip which shows teams of highly skilled women operating machinery in a complex production process. This is footage from 1913, showing Peter Scott’s clothing factory at Hawick in the Scottish borders.

From Wool to Wearer (1913)

(Clip 9.50 – 12.30 ‘Seaming the Garments & Adding ribbed ends’ – pool of female workers operating the sewing machinery. CU of woman working the machine. Then women in the knitting shop operating machinery.)


Most of the films mentioned here are either made by, or commissioned by the companies concerned in order to advertise their products. They tend to emphasise the processes involved in the industrial manufacture of their various products, and as part of this they showcase the efficiency and skill of the working women they show. For many of these workers of course, there was another incentive for efficiency – they weren’t paid by the hour, but rather were on piece-rates: they were paid according to the number of items they managed to produce.

The next film (from the Scottish Screen Archives at the National Library of Scotland) illustrates well the efficiency and skill of women working on piece rates. It’s from 1910 and shows Scots women packing herring at Great Yarmouth. The women were paid by the barrel to gut, salt and pack the fish with tails pointing inwards. As you probably know, these women followed the fishing fleet as it followed the shoals of herring down the coast from Scotland throughout the spring and summer, usually winding up at Yarmouth around October. Special trains were put on to take them home again once the season had finished. At this point, the trade was booming, but most of the fish went to markets in Russia and Germany and the First World War saw a catastrophic decline in demand for the Herring, which never recovered.

Herring Harvest at Yarmouth (c1910) (Clip 3.13-5.25 – ‘The Scotch Lassies at Work’)


Of course, perhaps the most far-reaching changes in the lives of working women were as a result of the First World War. The war resulted in a massive expansion of working opportunities for women, not just in the formally constituted women’s services, such as the Women’s Army Auxilliary Service, The Women’s Land Army and the various nursing organisations like the Women’s Voluntary Aid Detachment, but also taking the place of men in a huge variety of roles from Ambulance driver, to Bus Conductor to Cinema Projectionist. Female projectionists were known as ‘Projectionettes’ and a significant number of them were working in cinemas during the war. The name ‘Projectionette’ of course, is a play on the common name for the most visible form of women’s work during the war – which was in munitions factories, as ‘munitionettes’ or ‘canary girls’. Munitions work was incredibly dangerous. There was a real risk of explosions – some estimates suggest that as many as a thousand munitionettes were killed in accidental explosions in factories across the UK during the war.[5] The work was also dangerous because of the TNT which the women handled at close quarters – the chemical stained their hair and skin yellow, but also in many cases lead to TNT poisoning and death. Here are some scenes of women working with these chemicals, taken from the official 1917 War Office Cinematograph Committee film which shows ‘A Day in the life of a Munitions Worker’ in the Chilwell Arms Factory, Nottinghamshire.

A Day in the Life of a Munitions Worker (1917 War Office Cinematograph Committee)

As you can see, the danger of the work is highlighted in this film, and it has been argued that it was partly women’s willingness to undergo these dangers – to risk death for the war effort that turned the tide of public opinion in favour of women’s suffrage by 1918. The status and importance of munitions work (and also its risk) can be gauged by the relatively high wages women could earn in the industry – approximately three times the rates that they were paid in pre-war factories. But of course with improved living standards for such women came much criticism from journalists and parliamentary sources about their extravagant leisure spending. Particularly, female munition workers acquired a reputation for heavy drinking – a reputation that a number of surveys and reports discovered to be completely unwarranted but, as we now know, fake news sticks.[6]

Perhaps one of the most striking things about those images of the munitions factory is how unmechanised it is. The women pour the explosive ingredients into the shells by hand, they fix the detonators by hand, and in an earlier section of the film they screw the caps on the shells individually. Unlike in the cutlery factory, or in the wool mill, there is no machinery to help them. The next two clips offer contrasting insights into the highly mechanised process of industrial baking. First we’ll have real images of the biscuit making process as filmed in MacFarlane Lang’s factory in Tollcross, Glasgow in 1928. Then straight afterwards we’ll make a brief excursion into the age of SOUND to see how a couple of years later in 1932 if the women from MacFarlane’s factory had gone to the cinema, they might have seen their lives transformed into a Hollywood fantasy version of working in an industrial bakery (the film is an Eddie Cantor musical called Palmy Days). I’m sure you’ll have plenty of thoughts about the contrast between these two clips.

Biscuit Making in 1928 (1928) (Clip – 1.35 to 3.30 cutting and baking crackers)

Palmy Days (1932) (opening sequence) 

So far I’ve concentrated on working class women doing industrial work. That’s partly in deference to the closing gala which we’re going to see tonight – Maurice Elvey’s feature film adaptation of Stanley Houghton’s play Hindle Wakes. The film was made in 1927 and updates its story to the 1920s, although the play itself was written and set in 1910. It was premiered at Annie Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre in Manchester, and was one of several plays which Horniman commissioned from a new ‘school’ of writers concerned to tell realistic stories about life in industrial Lancashire. Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse is perhaps the most famous other example of the ‘Manchester school’. What links them both is a celebration of their central female characters and the independent spirit which they show – a spirit which is explicitly linked to their ability to earn their own wages and be independent in life, as a result of working in factories, cotton mills and shops. ‘As long as there are spinning mills in Lancashire’ says the heroine of Hindle Wakes, ‘I can earn enough to keep myself respectable.’

I’d like to return now, though, to the new office and clerical jobs such as telephone operator and typist that I started with. Here too cinema and theatre represented independence as the chief benefit of women’s work – independence from social mores from family life, but also independence perhaps crucially for from male expectations that middle class women be merely shop-windows to display their husband’s ability to keep them in idleness.

None demonstrated this more than in the 1920 British film The Twelve Pound Look (dir. Jack Denton). This film was adapted from a one act play by Sir James Barrie. Like many film adaptations of the period, the film expands on a backstory that the play merely hints at, offering a chronological account of the gradual liberation of its heroine by way of a typewriter.

Kate is the film’s heroine. She’s the humble daughter of a clergyman, but she has made an advantageous match, marrying the extremely wealthy and successful Sir Harry. She hasn’t been married long before she realizes that Sir Harry is an oppressive and controlling husband. He’s only interested in money, and he’s only interested in Kate in so far as she can function to display his money and his success through presiding as hostess over his lavish house parties, charming and ingratiating his boring political and business friends, and literally displaying his wealth on her neck and body in the shape of luxurious jewels and clothes. She feels trapped until one day she meets a lady typist who has been hired to do some work for her husband. She is struck by the air of ‘contented independence’ which the woman exudes, and asking her about it, she is told that this is the ‘twelve pound look’ – the look of satisfaction that goes with knowing that on an outlay of only twelve pounds to buy a typewriter, the woman has gained the means of permanent work, and her own independence….

Sadly The Twelve Pound Look isn’t available in a digital format, so I can’t link to a copy of it, but do recommend the play itself – just one act, but quite a revelation for it’s time. It’s available from the Internet Archive here








[2] ‘Chicago Telephone Girls: Flirting Forbidden’, Gloucester Echo 25/7/1912: 3.

[3] ‘Hello Girl now Civil’, Dundee Courier 15/12/1913: 8.

[4] ‘Telephone Scandal in Paris’, The Scotsman 8/9/1913: 5. ‘Telephone Girl’s Stratagem’, Western Gazette 17/2/1911: 16.

[5] Nicoletta F. Gullace, ‘The Blood of Our Sons’: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 163.

[6] Angela Woollacott, On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War (University of California Press, 1994) p. 127.

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