A pleasing tone always…

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.

Speak Clearly Always! 1958. (POST 109/23)

Speak Clearly Always! 1958. (POST 109/23)

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not visible to the public, the level of objection to the ‘Speak clearly’ poster was strong enough for it to be withdrawn.

A pleasing tone - always! November 1957 (POST 110/1636)

A pleasing tone - always! November 1957 (POST 110/1636)

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’.

All depend on you! August 1954 (POST 110/1626)

All depend on you! August 1954 (POST 110/1626)

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)

3 responses to “A pleasing tone always…

  1. I’m intrigued, so you have copies of these as well as the BT archive (which is the only place I’d seen the Huveneers before now)? How did they divide up the spoils then, or do you look after both arms of the collection anyway?

  2. Hello,

    Yes, BT have the artwork for the ‘Speak clearly’ and ‘A pleasing tone’ posters, as well as a copy of the ‘pleasing tone’ poster. BT Archives have copies of almost all the remaining telecommunications posters we hold – implying that we kept some duplicates of telecommunications posters transferred to BT, maybe because they were particularly nice posters, and maybe because telecommunications were still very much part of the GPO in the 40s and 50s and hence, where possible, a copy has been kept. We have a number of registered files, currently stored off-site, on the transfer of archive material from the National Postal Museum and BPMA to BT, which could elaborate further on the subject if time permitted. However, I think the reason is probably fairly simple – where duplicate copies were found, we kept one and the rest went to BT. The general principle is that material in the BPMA archive collections pertaining to telecommunications went, and is still transferred, to BT Archives, who store and provide access to it. The reason for this division being the British Telecommunications Act, 1981, which transferred the responsibility for telecommunications services from the Post Office to British Telecom, creating two separate corporations.

    Hope that answers your query in some way!

  3. Pingback: My Favourite Objects: GPO Posters | The British Postal Museum & Archive

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