Memory  /  Obituary

Overlooked No More: Harriott Daley, the Capitol’s First Telephone Operator

Daley, who became a switchboard operator in 1898, made sure members of Congress were just a phone call away.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

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 much discretion 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. 

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