Sometimes I find items in the archives that just ‘speak’ to me, and two posters, designed by Pieter Huveneers, certainly do. In my opinion, the vivid colours and benign faces of the ladies featured, with their outsize (and even technicolour!) eyelashes, have a particular charm. However, items that are now archive records can be viewed very differently by archivists than they were by those at whom they were originally directed.
Indeed, the subjects of these posters by Huveneers were not so happy with their aesthetic portrayal. Female telephonists at Liverpool Telephone Exchange believed the ‘Speak clearly’ illustration gave ‘such a strong impression of a vacuous mind’ that ‘it reflected adversely on their attitude to their jobs’. Despite the posters only being intended for display on staff notice-boards in telephone exchanges, and were therefore not visible to the public, the level of objection to the ‘Speak clearly’ poster was strong enough for it to be withdrawn.
Although the posters achieved their fundamental aims of being striking and capturing attention, it is difficult to see a clear link between the message and the accompanying illustration. It’s understandable that some telephonists felt attention was being directed more towards their appearance than the intended subject of ‘business efficiency’.
According to the Chairman of the Post Office Internal Relations Panel/Joint Production Council Huveneers was ‘trying to illustrate an idealised notion of the impression made by a telephonist who speaks clearly’. This implies that the purpose of the well-spoken telephonist was to conjure up an image of being easy on the eye!
Although the young telephonists at Liverpool Telephone Exchange didn’t want to be seen as doll-like caricatures, neither did they want to be seen as drab and old-fashioned. In 1958 some 53% of permanent female telephonists in London and the provinces were aged 25 and under compared to 3.5% aged 51-55.
An attempt to introduce a different style in the form of the ‘All depend on you’ poster also received an unenthusiastic response. The general feeling being that if a women of her more mature years (she looks fairly young to me!) had been any good ‘she would have been promoted long since and not still be sitting at a position’.
Perhaps if the men in charge at the GPO had not mistakenly thought that female telephonists were vying to be the pin-up voice of the telephone service they would have found them less ‘hard to please’. Thankfully for us they did, as otherwise we wouldn’t have these two wonderful posters!
Source: Internal Relations Panel/Joint Production Council (IRP/JPC): Comments on IRP posters IRP 127, 128, 131, 132, 135 and 136 ‘A Pleasing Tone Always’, ‘Speak Clearly Always’ and ‘They Depend on You’. Complaints from staff at Head Post Office, Liverpool (POST 122/2937)
– Anna Flood, Archivist (Cataloguing)