Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people.
Before voice mail and voice recognition; before Siri and Alexa and their electronic sistren; before people cowered at the sight of incoming calls and hid behind blooping bubbles of text; before all that, there was Harriott Daley, the first telephone switchboard operator at the Capitol in Washington.
When Daley, who worked for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, arrived in the capital in December 1898, many of the lawmakers there, all men, regarded this newfangled talking device that she heralded with the same skepticism, even horror, that today’s digital natives express toward their smartphones’ “talk” function. Representative Joseph Gurney Cannon, an Illinois Republican who later became House Speaker, was particularly leery, Daley once recalled with amusement.
Phones were scarce at the time — telegrams were the with-it way to convey urgent messages, and letters were still holding their own — and congressional pages fielded the few fledgling calls.
“But then there was just a dawning realization that people wanted to communicate with each other, that this was the tool that was available to do it,” said Daniel S. Holt, assistant historian at the Senate Historical Office. The phone also allowed those with something to say to their elected representatives to do so without traveling to the Capitol’s sandstone steps.
And who was available to operate this modern tool discreetly, efficiently, pleasantly and for a reasonable wage? Women.
“This became one of the jobs that was considered safe and appropriate,” said Ellen Lupton, a curator of “Mechanical Brides,” a 1993 exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York on the theme of technology and the feminine. “Respectable female employment.”
This Harriott Daley sorely needed.
She was the third child of four, born in Portsmouth, Va., around 1867 to David Jeremiah Godwin, a lawyer and judge who had been a colonel in the Confederate army, and the former Lucrece Wilson.
The Godwin children were cared for by an African-American nanny and attended genteel parties on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In her early 20s, Daley gave birth to a daughter, Elsie, whose father was George Daley, an Irish dancing master. Daley would later describe herself as a widow, which sounded respectable, but she and George had actually parted ways before he died.
“I always said, He danced right into her life and danced right out,” said Margaret McDaniels, one of Daley’s four great-grandchildren. (The others are David G. Longfellow, Barbara Longfellow Merry and Ilya J. Longfellow.)
Despite being a single parent, Daley often stayed late at the Capitol to work through legislative night sessions, initially by herself. “It was just after the Spanish-American War, and things were certainly humming,” she told Drew Pearson and Robert Allen in 1936 for their syndicated column Washington Merry-Go-Round.
That hum quickly grew to a din, composed of calls not only between legislators, but also from constituents who increasingly had their own phones for articulating complaints, comments and requests.
By 1905, Daley was supervising four other operators, all of them women; by 1909, there were 10, with men taking over during the less-busy night hours. The operators’ duties included keeping careful accounts of calls for billing purposes, and in 1913, Daley provided crisp and exacting testimony during an investigation of influence-peddling accusations against Rep. James Thomas McDermott, Democrat of Illinois, that resulted in his censure.
By 1929, Daley and the now-18 operators who reported to her were working out of more established quarters on the fifth floor of the Cannon Office Building, handling around 30,000 calls a day over 100 main lines and 1,000 stations. A year later, the introduction of the dial telephone provoked an uproar among senators. (“Could not be more awkward than it is,” grumbled one, Clarence Dill, Democrat of Washington State.) They passed a resolution opposing it and got phones that allowed for the option of warmer, more interactive “manual” service, with a woman’s hands connecting the calls.
By the time she retired in 1945, Daley was supervising a corps of 50 loyal “hello girls,” as they had come to be known, or “pluggers,” as they were also called, and attending to 535 members of Congress with a switchboard 60 times the size of the one she had first encountered. “This army of women were the ones who made the connections,” Lupton, the curator, said.
As the general leading this army, which her own daughter joined for a time, Daley had muchdiscretion in handling calls and a prodigious institutional memory. Her salary, however, peaked at $2,740 a year, less than $40,000 in today’s dollars. She lived in a series of modest apartments with her daughter and, eventually, a granddaughter, Lucrece. One apartment was at the Brighton Hotel, where they sometimes took in boarders. It was a 45-minute streetcar ride from the Capitol.
Lucrece eventually married Dean Johnson Longfellow, a son of the water-safety pioneer Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, and Daley stayed with them for a time. McDaniels, her great-granddaughter, was impressed that her petite, bright-eyed great-grandmother, whom she knew as “Danny,” had once had access to the president. She also remembered the “teeny-tiny” gold dancing shoes Daley kept carefully wrapped in tissue, and her exceptional sewing.
“She would make these beautiful little dolls’ clothes,” McDaniels said.
Daley died on Friday, Nov. 1, 1957, after having a stroke, The Washington Post reported. It was the same year that the Capitol’s hated dial service underwent a major expansion.
Today, even amid the blur of email and social media, direct-dialing members of Congress remains a powerful tactic for constituents with grievances to air.
“There is still a switchboard,” said Holt, the Senate historian.
There is an old joke that asks, “What are the three basic means of communication?”
The answer is, “Telephone, telegram and tell-a-woman.”
In 47 years of government work, Harriott Daley turned that sexist punch line on its ear.
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