Note: Normally the Heritage Room would be changing out our display cases for the summer months right about now. However, with the closure of the building, only a few patrons got to see the exhibit put up in March featuring important women from Athens. Instead we’ll be posting a brief blog post about each woman here. Check back to see more of our virtual exhibit series.
If you’re of a certain age, the idea of a telephone operator is a completely foreign concept. For those of us who grew up in the age of answering machines, automatic switchboards, and now cell phones, the concept of the phone company has come to perhaps mean our cell phone provider more than another phone operator. But, all things must start somewhere; phone companies got their start in the 1800s, as private phone lines began to be a luxury that some could afford (History Atlanta notes that private phone lines came to Atlanta, for example in 1877) and public phone lines became more common. Of course, the question remains — who was behind making these lines work the way that they should? The answer to that question for the South was the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company.
In 1879, when public telephone lines were first coming to Atlanta, the Bell Company (formed in Connecticut in 1877) began the Bell Telephone Company’s Atlanta Telephonic Exchange as it was initially created to service citizens of Atlanta. However, soon enough, telephone services became something that was wanted outside of the big city, and the ATE renamed the Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph company in 1882. The SBT&T operated across the South, serving nine southern states, which later dropped to four when the western portion of the territory split off. The company, originally incorporated in NY, was incorporated in GA in 1983 as SBT&T Co. You, however, may know this company by its more contemporary name, BellSouth Telecommunications, which was then merged with AT&T in 2006.
What does all of this have to do with Athens, you maybe be asking. Plenty! Southern Bell began operations in Athens in August 1882 with just thirty-six subscribers. It was headquartered in various places across town, including the rear of Scudder’s jewelry store , a location at the corner of College and Clayton in 1889, the Talmadge Building in 1906, and finally to its own building at 183 W. Clayton St. in 1918. Joanna Eppard is an important part of remembering these locations as her collection (MSS 026) houses these photos of the back room of these locations, as well as some of her own photography of the business.
Every time that the Southern Bell headquarters moved, there was an increase in space, and an increase in employees. While this can probably be conjectured from these moves, we know this in a much more concrete way because of the work of Joanna Eppard (1892-1968). Eppard was an employee of the SBT&T from 1907 to 1937, with much of this time being spent as a supervisor. (In a 1922 issue of Southern Telephone News, Eppard is listed as “supr,” or supervisor and again listed as supervisor in the 1931 Athens City directory.) From 1907-1937 the SBT&T company grew exponentially; by the time Eppard retired in 1937 there were more than 3,000 telephones in the city of Athens!
After her retirement in 1937, Joanna Eppard continued to be an active member of the Telephone Pioneers of America, a charitable organization comprising active and retired telecommunication professionals. She attended national meetings, as documented in MSS 026, up to her death in 1968. So remember, as you dial your phone to place your next call, whether from a landline or a cell phone, that much of our early phone service was pioneered by women like Eppard. For more information on the Joanna Eppard collection, contact the Heritage Room at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee, Conor. “Southern Bell Telephone Company Building.” History Atlanta Blog, 21 Feb. 2014. Southern Bell Telephone Company Building
Joanna Eppard collection, MSS 026, Heritage Room, Athens-Clarke County Library. https://aspace-arls.galileo.usg.edu/repositories/2/resources/20