Busy Signal: Why Talking on the Phone Was a No-No During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Americans had to think twice before picking up the telephone during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Americans had to think twice before picking up the telephone during the 1918 flu pandemic. / ArisSu/iStock via Getty Images

Of the many compromises and concessions people have had to make during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve at least been able to remain in contact with others by telephone. It might be a minor consolation given the lack of in-person social activity, but we’d certainly miss it if it were gone.

Americans during the 1918 flu pandemic weren’t quite as fortunate. In a story for Fast Company, Harry McCracken explains that residents were often dissuaded from using the phone, and it turns out that the old system of switchboard operation was to blame.

The H1N1 virus, which ultimately infected 500 million people globally and was responsible for 50 million deaths, was spreading across the United States at a time when roughly one-third of American households had telephones. Prior to the pandemic, companies like Bell Telephone promoted the invention as a way of keeping in touch with loved ones even if diseases like diphtheria or smallpox were forcing them apart. But the rampaging nature of the flu proved to be a poor fit for the analog phone systems, which depended on human operators connecting a call between two parties. Like any workforce, employees were susceptible to getting sick, which led to a reduction in their numbers. Reduced call capacity followed.

When the New York Telephone Company saw the number of switchboard workers cut in half, they began mailing cards to customers urging them to avoid using their phones. Idle chatter was discouraged. Instead, callers were asked to limit communication to emergencies or to follow up on medical needs. People calling to ask for the time of day—a common habit of the time—were frowned upon.

“Don’t telephone unless it is absolutely necessary,” one New York Telephone Company notice read.

“It is of the utmost importance that calls for doctors, drug stores, and all emergency calls arising from the epidemic be handled efficiently and it is the earnest desire of the company to do this,” a Piedmont Telephone and Telegraph Company message read. In other words—stop calling to ask what time it is.

Operators endured long after the pandemic, with the occupation remaining part of the telephone industry through the 1980s. Automated calls reduced or eliminated the need for operators, and today there’s no intermediary needed to connect with someone. (The last remaining switchboard in California closed in 1991.) While no one is at their most comfortable at the moment, at least someone’s voice is available on the other end of the line whenever you need to hear it.

[h/t Fast Company]