‘Halloa!’, later shorted to ‘Hello!’ was the greeting chosen for the newfangled task of answering the telephone. Before the late 1800s, ‘Hello’ and indeed ‘Hi!’ were used only to hail a person on the other side of the street, say, or to express surprise. (The quintessential English character of his time, Biggles was still prone to shouting ‘Hulloa’ in W.E Johns novels of the 1930s, especially when he saw a bally foreigner lurking in the shadows.)
The US entrepreneur Edison, who boosted telephone microphone levels, chose the word ‘Hello’ to begin a call whereas the original Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell preferred ‘Ahoy’. ‘Hello’ and ‘Hi’ gradually made their way into general, non-shouty use as a greeting. The more modern ‘Hey’ seems to have made a similar journey.
In 1881 the Australasian Sketcher newspaper published a wood engraving of scenes drawn by Julian Rossi Ashton at a Melbourne telephone/telegraph exchange, probably at the central GPO (General Post Office) on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets. Check out the quill pen being used at the desk.
The telephone room, Melbourne Exchange, by Julian Rossi Ashton; A/S29/01/81/37
Men were the supervisors and technicians of this new technology using telegraph lines; banks of enormous chemical batteries powered the exchanges. In the US, telephone exchange operators were called ‘Hello Girls’. Their Melbourne sisters in the 1890s, called ‘Telephone Girls’, wore corsets, sweepingly long skirts with aprons, and fitted long-sleeved bodices. It must have been hard for them travelling to and from work to keep their hems out of the notorious Melbourne mud, or the summer miasma of horse poo and dust. Their job was to plug and unplug lines to connect and disengage the few ‘early adopters’ who had a telephone in their business or home. Looking at stationery letterheads in the Library archives printed by the Troedel company from around the turn of the 1900s, it’s tickling to see phone numbers such as ’31’ and ‘2’.
By 1890 another engraved collage of sketches, also probably done at the GPO, was published in The Illustrated Australian News, this time drawn by Julian’s brother George. George put a lot of life into his illustrations: the linesman at the top right, in the below illustration, is unprotected (aside from his bowler hat) and untethered at the top of a telegraph pole, taking his chances with voltage and the distance to the ground. The women workers are leaning, turning, reaching. It must have been a long day, or night shift, on their feet. George captioned a drawing of the spaghetti-style wires ‘Concentrated human woes’. People didn’t tend to use the phone to chat in those days; it was a novelty and kept for business or ‘important’ news, which was often unwelcome.
The telephone system of Melbourne by George Rossi Ashton; IAN01/09/90/8
Conversations were short, not least because of the widespread suspicion that the Telephone Girls would eavesdrop: in truth they were usually too busy. Calls were often shouty, too, as people wrongly presumed the person at the other end couldn’t be clearly heard. The same thing happens today in every tram and train carriage as stentorian mobile phone users blithely bellow out details of their love life, work and lunch choices.
There’s also the book The phone book: the curious history of the book that everybody uses but no one reads, by Ammon O’Shea. It explains how the early US telephone directories instructed callers to begin by saying ‘Hulloah’. Although I have always preferred to end a call by announcing, ‘I shall ring orf directly’ or ‘Goodbye, goodbye’, the directories instead recommended: ‘That is all’.
Kaz has chosen items from the collection for the exhibition ‘What Have You Come As?’ as part of Changing face of Victoria– a free exhibition in the Dome Galleries at the State Library. It features fancy dress, jewellery, hats, photos, a Coles cafeteria apron and a Communist sock. It’s on until November.