“The Voice with a Smile Will Be Gone for a While”: Photographs of the 1947 Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company Strike

By: Sophie Goldman '23

Access the digitized photo album via Princeton University Library.

On April 7, 1947, picket lines appeared across the United States, marking the start of a strike taking place in all but nine states.[1] For the next six weeks, striking workers attempted to disrupt telephone communications across the nation, with the goal of obtaining wage increases. In Lincoln, Nebraska, members of the United Union of Telephone Workers (U.U.T.W.) marched against the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company. A spiral-bound, red photograph album with black construction paper pages, now owned by the Princeton University Library, captures these strikers on and off the picket line as they attended both union and company events. The 60-page album, which measures nine by six inches when closed, primarily features smiling young women in its 118 photographs. Throughout the album, picket signs announce “The Voice with a Smile Will Be Gone for a While,” “On Strike for Parity Wage Rates with Bell Telephone Workers,” and “Lincoln Telephone Co. Unfair to Employees.”

Nora Anderson, Betty Zuerlin, and Sally Livermore, three company employees, at the 1947 strike in Lincoln.

What was the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company?

The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company, or the LT&T, was established in 1903 as an independent telephone company and emerged as direct competition to the local services of the Bell Telephone System, which spanned the United States.[2] After an early 20th century success in uprooting Bell from the local network, the company grew to employ nearly 1,400 workers by the end of 1946 in offices across southeastern Nebraska.[3] Nationwide in the 1940s, 72% of telephone workers and nearly all operators were women.[4] These statistics were likely similarly reflected in the LT&T. The women pictured in the album are identified as working as operators, in the business office, and in the traffic, accounting, and service departments. In their work, these employees connected customers’ phone calls to their destinations and ensured prompt and efficient service for callers.

Female operators in the Lincoln office of the LT&T, photographed in 1945. Image Credit: History Nebraska, RG6097.PH000002-003042

Investigating the Album

The untitled album proceeds in what seems to be chronological order, beginning with undated photographs of “The Telephone Gang” at the Ashland, Nebraska office of the LT&T. Photographs taken the day of a 1946 U.U.T.W. general mass meeting are followed by photographs of the 1947 strike in Lincoln, Nebraska, which lasted from April 7 to May 19. The album concludes with images of 1947 and 1948 company Christmas parties, and photographs of the 1949 wedding of Dorothy Nelson and Virgil Bowman. Though the majority of the album focuses on the strike, the inclusion of these additional images indicate the significance of its creator’s social experiences as a company employee.

All but a handful of pages of the album contain two small rectangular photographs, each about the size of a wallet photo, that are inserted at the corners into holders. The majority of the captions only identify the pictured individuals, though others include witty comments about the moment being captured and do not name those in the photograph. Most of the photographs are posed portraits, though a few images are candid shots, all of which seem to be taken casually by an amateur photographer. A number of pages have come loose from the spiral binding, indicating some use, but the album is otherwise in very good condition.

Unlike most contemporary photograph albums, this album reads like a scrapbook, with significant attention paid to the captions included below each photograph. Based on the style of the album and the tone used in its inscriptions, it is possible that this album was created for primarily private use, with the goal of commemorating the creator’s experiences as an LT&T employee in a dynamic moment of company history.[5]

At the same time, one can imagine the album being viewed by other LT&T employees. The frequent use of first names and emphasis on identifying almost every photographed individual imply that the expected viewer might be familiar with the album’s subjects. In cases where individuals are not labeled, captions such as “Guess who?”, as seen under a photograph of one of the strikers, also uphold the assumption that the album’s viewers will have been personally acquainted with those photographed. Additionally, this methodical approach to labeling the album’s photographs seemingly anticipates that this album will be viewed in the years following the strike, at which point viewers might need reminders of who is photographed.

The album's captions primarily label its subjects, though some captions reflect the writer's thoughts about the image.

Duplicated Memories

The photograph album serves as both a personal object for its creator and a representation of the collective experience of the strikers. One might imagine those featured in the album viewing it together. There is evidence that suggests some of the photographs in the album were shared among strike participants. History Nebraska, the state’s historical society, owns around 50 photographs taken at the strike, which are also found in the photograph album.[6] Though these photographs are not compiled into an album, they are labeled on the back with the names of those photographed.

The historical society’s photographs were owned by Lola and Ruth Hetherington, two strikers who are identified in the album.[7] It seems that Ruth Hetherington labeled these photos, as an image of Ruth Hetherington is labeled “myself.”[8] Though the photographer is lised as "unknown," it is possible that the creator of the album held by Princeton distributed copies of the photos to her peers, or that one of the Hetheringtons took the photographs. The existence of these copies of the photographs demonstrate the ways this album captures a collective experience, which was remembered by multiple strikers through the preservation of these photographs.

The Hetherington sisters, pictured together, shared this album's desire to remember the events of the strike through preserving photographic memories.

Though it’s not clear exactly when the album was compiled, I would speculate that the images were consolidated after all the events reflected in the album took place. This album serves as a photographic record of a national moment of labor activism, but also reflects the apparent desire to preserve more mundane memories of working for the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company. While the strike is the centerpiece of the album, its inclusion of everyday company experiences not seen in the Hetheringtons' collection—Christmas parties, weddings of coworkers, and portraits on the office steps—reveal the personal importance of this album to its creator as a keepsake of an employment experience and what appear to be close friendships.

"Guess Who" Created the Album?

Initially, the album gives no clues to its owner or potential creator(s). Though most of the other individuals depicted in the album are identified by the captions, the images clearly featuring the owner of this album are only accompanied by the label “myself.” A crucial insight to learning more about who created the album came from investigating the reverse side of the photographs. After extracting one photo from its paper photo corners, the back revealed a stamped date (June 13, 1946) and a handwritten name: “Sutton.” This finding led to the identification of Doris Sutton, who is pictured throughout the album, including on the first page and in images from 1946, the 1947 strike, and the 1947/1948 company Christmas parties.

The back of a photograph, with Sutton's name in pencil.
The front of the labeled photograph, featuring the album's caption-writer (presumably Sutton).

Though the photographs in the album were plausibly taken by the album’s creator, there may have been other individuals involved in building the album through a collective effort. Perhaps the labeling of “Sutton” indicates that Doris Sutton took these photographs herself, or she may have received the photographs from a friend. Additionally, of the photographs whose backs were viewed, the only photographs that were labeled on the reverse were dated “June 13, 1946.” It is challenging to conclusively determine the photographers or original owners of the images, especially those taken before or after 1946.

The album could have been constructed, presumably by Doris Sutton, using the photographs from multiple LT&T employees. This would allow multiple perspectives of the strike to be preserved within one object that is seemingly centered around Sutton’s experiences. At the same time, it’s unclear why Sutton labeled herself with her full name in some photographs, and with personal pronouns in others, which might indicate that she viewed the album as more than a personal object.

Unlike most of the photographs in the album, its creator chose not to label this image, and instead included this joking caption.
This caption identifies the photo's subject as the album's compiler, but still doesn't provide a clear identification.
The first page of the album features this image of Sutton and Jean Gilmore, a coworker from the Ashland, Nebraska office of the LT&T.

By comparing these three images, it appears that Doris Sutton is featured in all three photographs, though it's unclear why she would have labeled herself inconsistently across the album. History Nebraska holds a copy of the first photo in their collections and identifies Doris Sutton as the subject. Click here to access History Nebraska's record for the photograph. The second photograph appears to feature the same woman as the photograph captioned "Guess Who" as well as the photograph labeled with Sutton's name.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the creation of the album, it is possible to characterize Sutton based on these photographs and through researching her peers. Examining 12 photographs of Sutton spread across the album, she appears to be a young adult white woman. An obituary for Sutton notes that she was born on October 16, 1919, making her 27 years old at the time of the national strike.[9] The obituary also mentions that she began working for the Ashland, Nebraska office of the LT&T in 1940, which explains the initial photographs in the album featuring women working in this office. After moving to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1942, Sutton worked as a long distance operator for the company’s Lincoln office, and served as an office central clerk from 1946 to 1982.[10]

Annetta Griess and Margaret Micloski are pictured with (presumably) Doris Sutton outside of the LT&T office in the top left and bottom right photographs.

Other women in the album can be characterized similarly, though the ages represented appear to range from young to middle-aged women. Using census records for Margaret Micloski and Annetta Griess, who are both included in photos with Sutton outside of the LT&T’s Lincoln office, I determined these women were of a similar age (27 and 33, respectively).[11, 12] Micloski moved with Sutton from the Ashland office to the Lincoln office, while Sutton is described as a “close friend” of Griess’ in her wedding announcement.[13, 14]

This album highlights the important role that Sutton played in documenting the strike and her experiences as an LT&T employee. Its photographs demonstrate the active involvement of the female telephone workers in union affairs in the year leading up to the strike, indicating a commitment to the union’s goals. Photographs from May 27, 1946 indicate that at least four women, labeled “Esther Borchers, myself [Sutton], Mary Ormand, and Catherine Cooley,” attended the general union meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska. A Nebraska City newspaper article frames this as a one day strike, in which workers attended the union meeting rather than fulfilling their job duties.[15] At this meeting, members learned of the outcome of conferences with the LT&T regarding a wage dispute. Though it’s not clear the extent to which women were involved in determining union affairs, as the article only names male leaders of the LT&T and of the U.U.T.W., the album’s images demonstrate the collective support expressed by these women for the union’s purpose. This attitude continued in 1947, during which the larger, six-week strike against the LT&T took place.

The caption in the photograph album reads: "Attending a general mass meeting of the U.U.T.W. held at the Hotel Lincoln May 27, 1946 -- Esther Borchers, myself, Mary Ormand, and Catherine Cooley"
The accounting department of the LT&T, photographed in 1946 and labeled "one day strike." Image Credit: History Nebraska, RG6097.PH000002-003320

A National Event

230,000 of these [telephone workers] were women, the largest number of that sex to take part in a strike in history.[17]

Frank S. Adams, "300,00 Quit Posts", April 8, 1947

The 1947 strike against the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company took place in the context of a larger, national strike, and the section of the album featuring photos from the strike is labeled “Nation-wide Telephone Strike April 7 … May 19, 1947.” The United Union of Telephone Workers, which appears to have consisted only of LT&T employees, was an affiliate of the National Federation of Telephone Workers, the organization responsible for the strike. U.U.T.W. members joined strikers across the country who were employed by the Bell System, including Western Electric and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T).[16]

Across the nation, over 300,000 workers went on strike. In a New York Times article published on the second day of the strike, one union advisor claimed that 230,000 women were striking, “the largest number of that sex to take part in a strike in history.”[17] This resulted from the significant representation of female employees in the telephone industry and marked a transformative moment in women’s labor history.

Like their peers across the country, U.U.T.W. strikers were driven by their desire for increased wages. In his doctoral thesis on the LT&T and its relationship with the telephone workers’ union, William Torrence explains that the U.U.T.W. strikers approached the strike with “considerable bitterness” due to the low wages paid by the LT&T relative to other companies, including the rival Northwestern Bell.[18] Torrence also notes that about 800 workers, who “represented about 65 per cent of total company employment” participated in the strike, and that strike attendance did not decrease substantially in the initial month of the strike.[19] Local reporters also noted the gendered element of the strike. On the first day of the strike outside of the Nebraska City office, one wrote that “about 30 strikers, mostly women and girls, appeared at the local plant at 8 a.m. Monday.”[20] The photographs in this album reflect the national and local trends: though a few male employees appear, almost all of the images feature female strikers.

Ruth Marcks, Mabel Volpp, and DeLores Glover are identified as three strike captains, and are seen posing together on one of the days of the strike.

Strikers came from multiple levels of the company’s organizational structure. The album’s captions identify members of the traffic, service, and accounting departments, among others. Additionally, three strike captains are identified, though it’s not clear what role they played in organizing the strike. Newspaper records note that “150 members of the U.U.T.W. joined the picket lines early Monday when only 14 members were assigned.”[21] The photographs in the album capture the eager attitude of the strikers: captions in the album note that they were striking at 6:00 am, and many of the group photos highlight a sense of camaraderie among the strikers.

Gender on the Picket Line

In her book on women’s labor history, Dorothy Sue Cobble argues that “women telephone workers and the organizations they built were the backbone of the 1947 nationwide telephone strike.”[22] This album’s centering of women on the picket line emphasizes this. However, despite the majority-female picket line, many newspaper articles emphasized the male leadership and their negotiations with the telephone companies. This album captures an element of the strike that is not as well represented in the historical record: the experiences of individual, named women.

Few other sources capture the playful, personal attitudes of the strikers. Three female telephone operators who participated in the national strike as members of other unions gave voice to the experiences captured in this album through oral history interviews conducted in the 1970s.[23] These recollections reveal the personal perspectives of these women, who served as leaders of their respective strikes, but do not reflect the Lincoln strike specifically. Additionally, while the album provides direct visual clues to the emotions of the strikers in the moment of the strike, these oral histories are displaced from the events of the strike by over 20 years.

Policemen pictured with DeLores (Glover) and Mabel (Volpp).
Ruth (Hetherington) and Evelyn (Vinkenberg) pictured with a "lucky cop."

In addition to reflecting the strike in a highly personal manner, the albums reflect the relationship between the strikers and the local police officers, with playful captions such as “the officers just “thought” they could scare Delores and Mabel.” This experience aligns with the recollections of Nelle Wooding, a strike officer at the Dallas, Texas picket line, who noted that the police were “friendly” and peaceful in their interactions with strikers.[24] The images also demonstrate the gendered dimensions of strikers’ interactions with male police officers. One photograph of Ruth Hetherington and Evelyn Vinkenberg with an unnamed officer is captioned “What a lucky cop!”. This intentional highlighting of the strikers’ femininity reveals an awareness of the role that gender played in the strikers’ experiences, both in their employment and on the picket line.

Local Implications

In this April 4, 1947 advertisement, LT&T officials anticipated the strike that began on April 7 and urged union members to negotiate.

Though the strikers did not face conflict with the officers, present “at company requst [sic],” LT&T executives explicitly denounced the strikers. The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company published advertisements disparaging the United Union of Telephone Workers, noting that “the demands made by the local union were prepared in accordance with a plan established by the national union … thus it is evident the local union is dominated and controlled by a national union… ”[25] The company’s anti-union attitude led to the misrepresentation of union demands One union handbill stated “[d]on’t fall for company propaganda paid for with your money. The Union is not asking for an increase of $14 per week, as the Company is trying to make you believe through paid advertising.”[26] In fact, while the union had initially demanded an increase of $12 per week, still lower than the purported amount, the final outcome of the strike resulted in only a $2 to $4 increase per week.[27]

Unlike most strikers, the LT&T employees worked for an independent company not associated with the Bell System. The LT&T may thus have had a particular incentive to resist the striker’s demands, which aimed to adjust the company’s wage model to match those used in Bell companies. Along with company-led anti-strike responses, the strike also had local implications on state politics. As an immediate reaction to the strike, Governor Val Peterson developed anti-strike legislation that banned strikes against the government and public utilities.[28] As William Torrence notes, this legal response was likely motivated by a bus strike taking place simultaneously in Lincoln, and not the LT&T strike alone.[29]

Picket signs emphasize the need for livable wages and equivalent wages to other telephone workers in the region.

The album serves as a scrapbook of a particular moment in the history of the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company — a moment that is not acknowledged in full in company history, or in the broader narratives surrounding the 1947 strike, other than Torrence’s thesis. John Schacht’s book The Making of Telephone Unionism, 1920-1947, explores the history of the NFTW, but makes no mention of the LT&T or the U.U.T.W., instead focusing on the Bell System. Additionally, a history of the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company, published by the company in 1955, minimizes discussion of the strike and emphasizes the lack of disruption to customers.[30]

Although the strike spanned the country, its impact on customers appears to have been mitigated by company efforts to preserve service. In place of the strikers, other company employees served as operators, and newspapers provided updates on service interruptions and changes. Some of those who crossed the picket line are characterized as having been employed by the company for many years, and it is possible that younger company employees were more highly represented among the strikers.[31] A month into the strike, reports indicated that “most calls are being answered, although at times there is some delay.”[32]

Despite the abundance of information contained in the album, researching some of the named individuals offered only minimal context for their union involvement after the strike. In the aftermath of the strike, the Communication Workers of America, a national union organization, was founded to replace the National Federation of Telephone Workers. After the strike, a number of the women depicted in the album were elected as officers to the local CWA chapters, holding positions such as "chairman" and "vice chairman."[33] It can be assumed that union involvement continued for the strikers in the years after 1947, though no strikes of this magnitude took place in the following years.

The last page of the album, featuring an unlabeled photograph. Though it's not clear what event is taking place, this image signifies the relationships that formed between the women working at the LT&T.

Through its depiction of the local experience of a nationwide event, this photograph album demonstrates the motivation and enthusiasm of the primarily female strikers in their protests against the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company. While the album reflects a collective experience, it simultaneously reveals the ways in which women’s employment experiences were captured and remembered through personalized photographic keepsakes. The women pictured throughout the album each symbolize individual narratives about the lives of women in the LT&T and in telephone unions. By offering a visual introduction to over one hundred LT&T employees, this album represents the opportunity to draw countless stories out of a single object.

[1] Frank S. Adams, “300,000 Quit Posts,” The New York Times, April 8, 1947, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1947/04/08/issue.html.

[2] The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company, “The History of LT&T” (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1955), http://bellsystempractices.org/Miscellaneous/thehistoryoflincolntelephoneandtelegraph-1955-small.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dorothy Sue Cobble, “The Other Labor Movement,” in The Other Women’s Movement, Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2004), 11–49, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s2pv.7.

[5] Comments from Martha Sandweiss, April 23, 2022.

[6] “RG0968 Lincoln (Nebraska) Telephone Company,” History Nebraska Digital Archives, accessed April 20, 2022, https://nebraska.access.preservica.com/index.php?name=SO_c323dac2-fe22-40fb-bb6a-c8b8b1b5261a.

[7] Karen Keehr, email to author, April 11, 2022.

[8] Karen Keehr, email to author, April 11, 2022.

[9] “Sutton, Doris Marie,” Nebraska Journal Star, January 20, 2014, https://journalstar.com/lifestyles/announcements/obituaries/sutton-doris-marie/article_ec79f5c4-f182-5976-8c26-7de173f36e0a.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] 1940 United States Census, “School Creek, Clay, Nebraska” Retrieved from Ancestry.com.

[12] 1930 United States Census, “Lincoln, Lancaster, Nebraska” Retrieved from Ancestry.com.

[13]“Farewell Party for Misses Sutton, Micloski,” The Ashland Gazette, August 12, 1942. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/669526503/.

[14] “Griess-Roseberg Nuptials on Sunday,” The Ceresco News, March 18, 1948. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/693794707/.

[15] “Telephone Union Would Arbitrate,” The Nebraska News-Press, May 26, 1946. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/730853165.

[16] United States National War Labor Board (1942-1945), “Table VIII. National Federation of Telephone Workers, Local Unions and Affiliated Membership in the Operating Telephone Industry,” in The Termination Report of the National War Labor Board: Industrial Disputes and Wage Stabilization in Wartime (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949), 982.

[17] Frank S. Adams, “300,000 Quit Posts,” The New York Times, April 8, 1947, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1947/04/08/issue.html.

[18] Torrence, William David. “A Case Study of Industrial Relations: The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company and Communications Workers of America, Local 7470.” Ph.D., 99. The University of Nebraska - Lincoln, 1962. http://www.proquest.com/docview/288003705/citation/E420F84EC2534ADCPQ/1.

[19] Ibid, 100.

[20] “Pickets March Around Office,” The Nebraska News-Press, April 7, 1947. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/730903870.

[21] “Local Strikes,” The Nebraska State Journal, April 8, 1947. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/314348992.

[22] Dorothy Sue Cobble, “The Other Labor Movement,” in The Other Women’s Movement, Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2004), 11–49, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s2pv.7.

[23] Catherine Conroy. Oral History Interview with Catherine Conroy Communication Workers of America. Transcript, August 1976. https://archives.wayne.edu/repositories/2/archivalobjects/783778.; Ruth Wiencek. Oral History Interview with Ruth Wiencek Communication Workers of America. Transcript, June 2, 1976.<a href="https://archives.wayne.edu/repositories/2/archivalobjects/783832"> https://archives.wayne.edu/repositories/2/archivalobjects/783832.; Nelle Wooding. Oral History Interview with Nelle Wooding Communication Workers of America. Transcript, March 24, 1970.<a href="https://archives.wayne.edu/repositories/2/archivalobjects/783833"> https://archives.wayne.edu/repositories/2/archival_objects/783833.

[24] Nelle Wooding. Oral History Interview with Nelle Wooding Communication Workers of America. Transcript, March 24, 1970. https://archives.wayne.edu/repositories/2/archival_objects/783833.

[25] “Telephone Strike Not Justified,” The Nebraska State Journal, April 4, 1947, sec. Advertisement. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/314347934.

[26] “Telephone Strike Continues,” Nebraska Signal, May 1, 1947. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/690659432.

[27] Torrence, “A Case Study of Industrial Relations: The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company and Communications Workers of America, Local 7470.” 97, 102-104.

[28] “Phone Employes [sic] Return to Work As Strike Ends,” Lincoln Evening Journal, May 19, 1947. Accessed through NewspaperArchive.com.

[29] Torrence, “A Case Study of Industrial Relations: The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company and Communications Workers of America, Local 7470.” 107.

[30] The Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company, “The History of LT&T” (Lincoln, Nebraska, 1955), http://bellsystempractices.org/Miscellaneous/thehistoryoflincolntelephoneandtelegraph-1955-small.pdf.

[31] “Telephone Strike On; Service Is Unusually Good,” Nemaha County Herald, April 10, 1947, http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/668847570/.

[32] “Telephone Strike Continues,” Nebraska Signal, May 1, 1947. https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/690659432.

[33] “Lincoln Division’s Telephone Workers Select New Officers,” The Nebraska State Journal, November 24, 1947, https://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/314323402.