Tag Archives: telephone

The First Phone Book

New Haven, Connecticut was a city of 150,000 people when, in 1878, it became the home of one of the world’s first telephone exchanges.

The District Telephone Company of New Haven was founded by George W. Coy, a former telegraph operator and the inventor of the commercial switchboard. In order to realize his dream of starting a telephone company, he borrowed six hundred dollars to fund the venture, then drafted an advertising circular which explained the potential benefits of telephone subscription. He mailed a thousand copies to the residents of New Haven. From the thousand letters, Coy received only one subscription.

Undeterred, he hired a team of salesmen, each of whom was paid $1.50 for every new customer. This worked a little better, and soon Coy had twenty more subscribers. Installation of the telephones began in November of 1877; lines were strung up informally, attached to trees, roofs or any other handy spot. By January of the next year the world’s first telephone exchange was in operation.

This progenitor of today’s telecommunications firms consisted of a small office where Coy himself sat on a soapbox and operated the switchboard he had personally designed and built. The switchboard was referred to as “Coy’s chicken” because of the squawking noises it made, and it rested on top of a kitchen table. The only other office furniture was a packing box which served as the office desk, and an old armchair for visitors. Company records from the time list the value of all the office goods, including the switchboard, at $39.50.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the District Telephone Company of New Haven was a pioneer in American telecommunications. The company, which changed its name to the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) in 1882, was responsible for the world’s first telephone booth (1878), the first pay phone (1879), and the nation’s first school for telephone operators (1907).

And it produced the world’s first telephone directory. In February of 1878, just a month into operations, the District Telephone Company released a printed list of its telephone subscribers. This list is today considered the world’s first phone book. Although other businesses had used telephones before, and even printed lists of subscribers, the New Haven specimen’s claim to primacy rests on the fact that it is the first such list to include private customers as well as business lines.

This phone “book” did not list telephone numbers, only names. Early telephone directories existed solely for the purpose of alerting customers to the existence of other telephone subscribers. To make a call, the telephone user would pick up the phone and tell the operator (all of whom, at this early stage, were male) the name of the person to ring up.

The first New Haven directory lists as the entirety of its contents three physicians, two dentists, two boarding stables, twenty stores and factories, four meat and fish markets, eleven residences, and eight places marked “miscellaneous.”

Although there are many reprints of this famous document, of the 150 copies originally printed only one survives. It is kept at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. The New Haven exchange itself is long gone. The location, at the intersection of State and Chapel streets, was awarded landmark status in 1964, and then torn down in 1973 by the New Haven Redevelopment Agency to make way for a parking garage.

A slightly newer version of the New Haven directory, from November 1878, was auctioned by Christie’s in May of 2008 and sold for $170,500.

(Shea 12-17)

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Filed under 19th Century

From Courting to Dating

Dating was invented in the 1920s.

Up through the beginning of the twentieth century, American courtship was carefully monitored. A girl would receive her gentleman caller on the front porch or in the family parlor, in the company of at least one adult chaperone. The couple would talk, read together, or play board games; on rare occasions they might be allowed to attend a church social or musical performance together, but always in view of nosy neighbors and family friends.

Under this system of courtship, women were in control. They selected the times and days for visits, did the inviting, and set the limits. All men could do was play along.

During the same period, even in the big cities, there was virtually no urban nightlife in America. After the sun went down, the night was lit only by the dim glow of gas lamps, and few respectable persons would dare to venture out after dark.

But by the first decade of the twentieth century, all that started to change.

The first challenge to the courtship system was America’s infatuation with the bicycle. These new contraptions made it easier for couples to slip away beyond the monitoring eyes of parents. Then came the telephone, which made it possible for young people to talk more freely, more often, and with more privacy.

Then came the automobile.

In the first years of the twentieth century, cars were considered unsafe and impractical. They didn’t work very well, and only millionaire hobbyists owned them. Drivers were limited to speeds of eight miles per hour, and some local ordinances required that each car be preceded by someone on foot, who was to warn pedestrians by waving a red flag.

But by the 1920s, cars were becoming commonplace; one-fifth of all Americans owned one of the new mass-produced automobiles. Suddenly, young people were never home anymore. Increasingly, they spent their evenings not in the family parlor, but in a car parked at Lover’s Lane.

In the same decade, for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than in the countryside. More and more young people were leaving the family farm every year, and flocking to the newly-electrified cities.

Many of those new urbanites were women. By 1929, more than half of all single American women were gainfully employed, and many of them lived in large cities, alone and unsupervised, in boardinghouses or private apartments.

Thanks to mechanization, working people found that their hours dropped, while wages rose. Young people suddenly had more time on their hands and more money to spend. And they had all kinds of new public amusements on which to spend it: dance halls, movie palaces, amusement parks and baseball stadiums sprang up everywhere.

These amusements were meant for men and women to enjoy together. Popular amusement park concessions included romantic rides like the Tunnel of Love, and scary rides meant to induce mock terror and encourage clinging and hugging. In the dance halls, women stayed out late, smoking, drinking and carrying on with men, engaging in the new dances with their wild movements and close embraces.

Instead of paying calls, young men and women were now going on “dates,” a term that social commentators still  placed between quotation marks in the immediate pre-War years.

In contrast to the more circumscribed rituals of courting, the new dating culture led to increased sexual frankness and experimentation.

Although women were earning more money then ever before, wage and employment discrimination were rampant. Most working girls could barely earn enough to survive, and could not afford to go to movies or amusement parks on their own, nor afford the fancy clothes such activities required. So dating soon evolved into a system whereby men paid for dinners, movies and admissions, and women were unofficially expected to provide some physical and romantic attention in return.

The unwritten expectation that women would reciprocate sexually in return for indulging in social opportunities was completely new. Since dating was centered on public leisure activities that cost money, it took away much of the power women had held under the courtship system, and instead gave the advantage to men, who had the money to spend.

(Zeitz 29-38)


Filed under 20th Century