Excerpts from
America Calling
A Social History of the Telephone

by Claude Fischer

pp. 223-227

Personal Calls, Personal Meanings

An elderly Antioch man recalled to us that, as a youngster before World War I, he sometimes rode a horse to a wealthy neighbor's home. "One day at lunch the phone rang. It was a hand magneto phone that they had just installed. Mr. Henry answered it and he reveled at it. 'I was talking to Concord! just like I'm talking to the guy in my own living room!' he said. He had to scream into the thing, though.... It didn't impress me too much. I always took innovations and advancements for granted. [But] it was a heck of a machine. " From Mr. Henry's excitement to our interviewee's nonchalance, personal reactions to the telephone varied, as did its personal consequences.

This chapter assesses how Americans in the first half of the twentieth century used the telephone and what personal meanings it had for them. Speculations about those meanings have ranged widely and wildly. Industry flacks claimed that telephoning empowered people and preserved family life; critics charged that the telephone's ring j angled nerves and shred privacy; media guru Marshall McLuhan drew images of electronic transcendence; and a recent deconstructionist analysis found Freudian significance in the fact that ears, the receivers of calls, are orifices.'

How can one appraise even modest claims about the historical psychology of the telephone? How can we overhear the conversations of, and weigh the implications for, people long gone-implications even they themselves may not have fully appreciated? We have a few tactics at our disposal, One is to draw inferences from our findings in the previous chapters about early telephone users. Another is to consult studies of telephone users today. This second strategy must be employed with great caution, however, for the social psychology of the telephone has probably changed over time, as subscription has become a requirement instead of a luxury. Yet, lacking comparable evidence from the past, current research adds to our understanding. A third tactic is to draw on the recollections of now-elderly people. Although it draws on two published oral histories, this study depends largely on 35 interviews we conducted in the mid-1980s with residents of our three towns. We talked with men and women who ranged in birthdates from 1888 to 1917. Oral histories are not magic windows to the past, but they do provide otherwise unattainable information.

For simplicity, I have divided discussion of the telephone's personal implications into two broad categories, social and psychological. Did having a telephone in some way alter social relations? Did it alter what the French historians call mentalite? These questions must be qualified by another: altered in comparison to what? Some writers imply that telephoning is properly compared to letter writing. Yet, by far, most calls were and still are immediately local. The more relevant comparison, in most instances, is between telephoning and face-to-face conversations. Another comparison will be, as through most of this study, with the automobile. A second qualifier to the social and psychological questions is to stipulate that we are looking at implications in America. There is a small but suggestive literature claiming national differences in how people use telephones-for example, that Greeks call more often for sociable chats than do the British, the French more often than Americans. 3


AT&T advertisements claimed that telephones nurtured a "close-knit, personalized society" and "simultaneously provided a means of overcoming distance and complexity by reestablishing simple, immediate, person-to-person contacts. " Marshall McLuhan implied much the same: "By electricity, we everywhere resume person-to-person relations as if on the smallest village scale." (The vocabulary of "reestablishing" and "resume" underlines a point made by Roland Marchand that some observers saw modern technology as a way to recapture an ideal past.)' Other enthusiasts linked the telephone to family life in particular. In an essay for an AT&T magazine, Margaret Mead extolled the capabilities of the telephone for binding together kin. Telephone songs in the late nineteenth century sentimentalized the telephone connection with ballads like "Kissing Papa Thro' the Telephone"; "Love by Telephone"; and "Hello, Is This Heaven? Is Grandpa There?" Many commentators- government commissioners, industry spokesmen, and authors of popular magazine articles (some no doubt ghosted by industry publicists)-praised the telephone as a way to alleviate rural isolation (see Chapter 4).

Others, however, present less sanguine views. One concern has been that the telephone, by allowing people to substitute electronic communication for face-to-face encounters, sustains only a semblance of "real" relations. A story published in 1893 forecast America in 1993: Families would live on scattered homesteads, neighbored only by people of like "sentiment and quality," would conduct their work electronically, and would meet one another only on ceremonial occasions. (Today's futurists who predict a country of scattered "electronic cottages" are not so inventive, after all.) The problem many find with such telephonic neighborhoods is that they are "larger but shallower kinds of community. " A sociologist of technology, Ron Westrum, recently claimed that the "coming of the telephone began the unraveling of social processes.... [P]eople became willing to accept physical separation as along as contact could still be maintained by telephone. But telephone contact is not the same as being there, and it creates a different kind of society..... A related worry is that telephonic relations are inherently inauthentic and will, if they become customary, impair other interactions, too. Sociologist Peter Berger, for example, has claimed that

[t]o use the phone habitually also means to learn a specific style of dealing with others-a style marked by impersonality, precision, and a certain superficial civility. The key question is this: Do these internal habits carry over into other areas of life, such as non-telephonic relations with other persons? The answer is almost certainly yes. The problem is: just how, and to what extent?

A different concern is that the telephone may enable too much or the wrong kinds of social interaction. In 1899 an Englishman noted that the day when every household could call every other was to be feared "by the sane and sensible citizen. " An American professor fulminated in 1929:

We are largely at the mercy of our neighbors, who have facilities for getting at us unknown to the ancient Greeks or even our grandfathers. Thanks to the telephone, motor-car and such-like inventions, our neighbors have it in their power to turn our leisure into a series of interruptions, and the more leisure they have the more active do they become in destroying ours.

Malcolm Willey and Stuart Rice also concluded that "[p]ersonal isolation-inaccessibility to the demands of others for access to one's attention-is increasingly rare, and, when desired, increasingly difficult to achieve." The most notorious offenders were telephone salesmen. A contributor to Readers' Digest in 1937 complained that "there is not a room in the house so private that he cannot crash it by telephone."

The wrong kinds of telephone sociability, for some, included chitchat or gossip, the "exchange of twaddle between foolish women. " (More on women later in this chapter.) As discussed in Chapter 3, many people, both inside and outside the industry, considered "idle" conversations an inappropriate invasion of the household. Similarly, some worried that the telephone would permit indiscretions, especially between unsupervised women and strange men; would lead to inappropriate contact from people of the lower classes; or would simply allow any outsider free acccss to the family. People have also worried about the loss of privacy to listeners-in, be they others in the same room, party-line neighbors, nosy operators, or government officials.

Was the new technology of the telephone, then, a means of building a wider and richer community? Or was it a seductive device that ultimately impoverished social life? Or both? The historical record cannot resolve all the nuances of these arguments. Still, we can assess whether, how, and with what apparent import people used the telephone for sociability. First, we ask, to what degree did people use telephones for conversation and for sustaining social relations?

Surveys done in the last three decades suggest that people today most often telephone from home for social or vaguely personal reasons rather than for practical matters. AT&T research shows that half of the calls from any given residence, go to only five numbers, indicating that repeated conversations are held with a small circle of friends and family. In 1975 a fire in New York City knocked out thousands of household telephones for three weeks. In a subsequent survey, most respondents said that they largely missed calls to and from friends and relatives. In a 1985 poll, Californians estimated that about three-fourths of the local calls they made from home were for such purposes (against only one-eighth for household affairs). Of Americans interviewed in 1982 about their leisure activities, almost half talked on the telephone with friends or relatives virtually every day-fewer than the number that watched television or read a newspaper daily, but more than those that exercised, read books, shopped, drank alcohol, or had sex daily. In other nations today, even less-developed ones, most calls are made to friends or family.

For our period, we have the eavesdropping research done in Seattle in 1909, first reported in Chapter 3. Of the total calls surveyed, 30 percent were "idle gossip," fifteen percent were invitations, and twenty percent were from home to office -presumably some of those were from wives to husbands. Roughly half, then, had some social content, at a time when only about one-third of Seattle households had telephones. Also, those calls averaged over seven minutes in duration (compared to about four minutes for calls today), again implying social conversation.

Lacking any better statistical estimates of social calling for the early years, we must rely on the comments of contemporaries and the recollections of the elderly. The most dramatic and consistent testimony in the first few decades of the twentieth century indicated that rural people, especially farm women, depended heavily on the telephone for sociability, at least until they owned automobiles (see Chapter 4). These women used the telephone to break their isolation, organize community activities, keep up on news, help their children maintain friendships, and so on. Observers repeatedly claimed that telephoning sustained the social relations - and even the sanity - of women on scattered homesteads." Industry men were among such observers. For example, the North Electric Company stated in 1905, "The evil and oppression of solitude on woman is eliminated." An officer of an Ohio telephone company wrote the same year:

When we started... the farmers thought that they could get along without telephones.... Now you couldn't take them out. The women wouldn't let you even if the men would. Socially, they have been a god-send. The women of the county keep in touch with each other, and with their social duties, which are largely in the nature of church work."

Government inquiries bemoaned the isolation and boredom of rural existence for women but pointed to the telephone-and to the automobile -as a way to provide community life. "

How many calls and how much telephone time people devoted to social purposes is unclear, but the social function in rural areas -even if it was not the reason for initially subscribing-was readily apparent. Similar testimony for urban residents is, however, sparse.