Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Age of the Telephone

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 25, 2014.

“The News-Letter is connected with the telephone exchange and any orders received by telephone will be promptly attended to,” announced the editor in 1883. This small notice is the earliest indication we have that telephone service had arrived in Exeter. In the late 1890s, after patents on Bell Laboratories equipment expired, independent telephone exchanges began to sprout all around the country. Price wars followed as customers were able to find the least expensive phone company.

To merchants, it was important not to take sides in the exchange battles. The early part of the twentieth century still found merchants delivering goods to customers, thus it was a great convenience to have the customer call in the order that would then be delivered straight to the family home. Multiple phone companies were something of an irritant to the merchants, who had to have several phones installed, each serving a different exchange.

New England Telephone and Telegraph and the Exeter Telephone Company began competing services in town by 1898. That year, the Exeter Telephone Company was eager to relate that it already had 20 customers and the numbers were increasing. Early adopters included businesses, the men who ran those businesses, doctors and hospitals. The pattern is similar to the onslaught of cell phones in the late 1980s and 90s. At first, most people resisted the technology – we hadn’t needed it before, why should we need it now? But it would only take one break down on a lonely road to convince most people that cell phones were more than just a convenience. Back in 1900, it would take only one medical emergency without a nearby doctor to induce the family to have a phone installed.

Although people were glad to have telephones, the confusion with the many exchanges was a nuisance. In 1906, it was announced that a new exchange, Peoples Telephone Company of New Hampshire, would be organized in Exeter. Albertus T. Dudley unleashed his fury in a letter to the editor of the Exeter News-Letter, entitled “The Triplication of Telephones.” Angry about even two competing exchanges, let alone three, Dudley wrote, “The disadvantages were great. It involved a double set of poles and wires. It split the telephone using portion of the community into two parts, each inaccessible to the other except by the payment of double fees. It forced every business man who was ambitious to keep his customers to have two telephones in his store, to listen for his number on two jangling bells, to pay at the end of the month two bills. But what shall we say of a little community which deliberately takes to itself three telephone lines?” As the new equipment for the Peoples Telephone Company was installed, Dudley referred to the poles as “the hideously twisted sticks of an absolutely unnecessary company.”

Strong words, no doubt, but Dudley missed part of the new business plan. The old Exeter Telephone Company was absorbed into the new one, so Exeter never did have three competing phone exchanges. Peoples Telephone Company was absorbed into the giant New England Telephone and Telegraph Company by 1910, as most of the independent exchanges caved to the ever-growing phone monopoly.

In 1913, phone operators were required to use standardized responses to save time and confusion. The Exeter News-Letter noted that operators now asked, “Number, please?” “The two-word query will undoubtedly be more pleasing to the ear, and the addition of the polite word please to the questioning will give a fresh touch of courtesy to the service, to which the public will respond with a similar spirit.” 

Trans-continental service arrived in town in 1917 and the first such call took place in September when Exeter lawyer Samuel Bell called his wife in Pasadena, California. “But 45 minutes elapsed between the placing of the call and the beginning of conversation,” the News-Letter reported, “Connection was first made with San Francisco, which made the connection with Pasadena, and Mr. Bell heard the San Francisco operator with surprising distinctness. Mrs. Bell heard her husband perfectly. Mr. Bell could not hear her as well and at times Chief Operator Nora E. Noonan had to repeat her words to him.”

Telephone service continued to grow in the early decades of the twentieth century. The system was briefly nationalized during World War I and use was curtailed during the Second World War as customers were encouraged not to make social calls lest the government needed the lines to communicate with the troops.

Because lines could become overloaded, rates were set to encourage people to make social calls outside of business hours. Most people can still remember waiting until weekends or evenings to make long distance calls. Our telephone operators were necessary until the late 1950s when direct dialing started to become operational in the region, although people in Exeter weren’t fully able to use the system until 1969.

Oddly, the advent of the telephone made many despair that letter writing would disappear. It was simply too easy to call someone, why bother drafting a letter? Now, we hear similar complaints that no one ever talks to each other anymore because we mostly text. Never mind that fully two-thirds of my texts are “where are you?” – hardly a full conversation. Still, it’s communication and that’s better than isolation any day.

Image: The New England Telephone & Telegraph office in 1910

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New Exeter History Minute - Play Ball!

Soldiers returning from the Civil War brought a new game home with In this Exeter History Minute -- click here to watch -- Barbara explores the beginnings of the sport in the town of Exeter, NH, from early rules, to blue laws to school rivalries. This Exeter History Minute is sponsored by the membership of the Exeter Historical Society.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Let's Put on a Show!

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

As often happens in the research room of the Exeter Historical Society, one project leads to another. This past week, we were visited by Larry Benaquist, Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Keene State College, who was seeking some assistance with identifying locations in recently discovered film footage produced in 1943 by Louis de Rochemont Associates. De Rochemont was the director of many “March of Time” newsreel films including “New England’s Eight Million Yankees,” which features scenes of Exeter in 1941. Although none of the stills or scenes he brought seem to be from Exeter, our newspaper index search led us to a different – and completely unrelated – film project that took place in Exeter in 1940- the “Movie Queen.”

While announcing the arrival of de Rochemont’s newsreel project, the Exeter News-Letter commented, “Unlike the never-to-be-forgotten fiasco, ‘Movie Queen,’ which descended upon Exeter not too many months ago, our little town is to play an important role in a ‘March of Time’ production.” “March of Time” newsreels, however much they leaned toward propaganda at times, were a well-respected source of news for most people. But what of “Movie Queen” and why did the News-Letter refer to it as a “fiasco?”

We first found an announcement on March 7th, that a parade would be held two days later. Imagine throwing together a parade in a matter of days, but this seems to be what happened. “On Saturday, March 9 at the Railroad Station at 12:30, the mysterious Hollywood movie queen will be presented the key to the town by the selectmen. Immediately thereafter a parade will commence, headed by the ‘Movie Queen’ and the selectmen.” More interesting was the next sentence: “Movies will be taken of all in the parade as well as lookers on. The movie will be screened at the Town Hall on March 19th and 20th, at the same time as the three-act play, ‘Movie Queen,’ is presented.”

By the following week, more information made its way into the press. The parade, it seems, was a great success. The Exeter News-Letter gushed, “townspeople of Exeter avow they haven’t seen such a turnout on the streets and station at Exeter as at the station last Saturday when charming Ruth Colby, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. C.W. Colby, alighted from a train and was revealed as Exeter’s ‘Movie Queen.’” The parade was also covered by the Portsmouth Herald, which provided far more details, “the parade formed at the Boston & Maine railroad station and proceeded down Main Street to the town hall. The parade was headed by the Junior Legion Drum Corps and the ‘movie queen,’ Miss Ruth Colby rode in a car with C.C. Russell, the Republican nominee for selectman. The parade also included several pieces of the local fire apparatus, as well as automobiles displayed by local dealers. This was the first activity in connection with the show, which is being sponsored by the Daughters of Suzanna of the Methodist church and the welfare department of the Exeter Lions club.”

There is more to this story, and it extends far outside Exeter and a multi-media production of local talent. The “Movie Queen” was a production of the Amateur Theatre Guild of Boston and the production crews travelled around the country staging essentially the same show from town to town. The business model shared profits from the show with local civic organizations on a 50/50 basis and counted on the excitement of the local population – especially those caught on film – to draw an audience. To pull this off, there had to be only goodwill between the crew and the townspeople. This is probably why the same edition of the News-Letter that reported on the parade also had a large ad which read, in part, “We apologize to the High School and Mr. McBride for seeming to want to compete with the school play. To prove our cooperation we have set back the date of our 3-act play ‘Movie Queen’ to March 25th and 26th. Help Mr. McBride get his athletic supplies – then come over to see yourself in the movies with the Movie Queen”

The program’s director, Dorothy Stone, was the organizer of the entire event. Women were commonly used by the Amateur Theatre Guild to promote their projects. It was probably felt that local people would be less suspicious if a woman was in charge. These were days when outsiders were still suspected of suspicious intent. The job must have been a mammoth one, considering everyone involved in the show – the News-Letter listed the cast as, “Miss Ruth Colby, Mr. George S. Carhart of the Academy faculty, Mr. George Knox and Mr. Thomas Norris of the high school faculty, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, Mr. Albert Taylor, Rev. Howard P. Weatherbee, Mr. Otis E. Hoyt, Mr. Gerald Chick, Manager Lothrop of the Atlantic & Pacific store, Mrs. Mabel E. Reed, County Commissioner Alvin E. Foss, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Wentworth; dancing chorus from the Seminary, and baby dancing chorus of 4-H girls. There will also be a swanky fashion show.”

After several delays, which may have been why it was later called a ‘fiasco’ along with the obvious courting of local vanity and capitalist motive, the show was finally presented on March 29th – several weeks after its initially scheduled debut.

Many towns in New England still have the reels of film associated with their own “Movie Queen” productions. The plot of these films is always the same; a local girl who has become famous is welcomed back to town arriving by train or boat. She is feted by the local businessmen and given the key to the town. Then there is a high-action sequence of attempted kidnapping thwarted by the local police. Where Exeter’s original film has gone is anyone’s guess. With any luck, it will turn up – as it has in many other towns – languishing in someone’s attic. If found, this little gem should provide us with the same thrill that people got when watching this earliest of ‘selfies’ back in 1940.

Image: This ad for a production of “Movie Queen” ran in the Exeter News-Letter on March 21, 1940. The film and stage show were the products of an itinerant film company called the Amateur Theatre Guild of Boston. By including scenes of townspeople and local businesses, the production was guaranteed a rapt audience.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Slate of Members for the Exeter Historical Society's Board of Trustees

Craig Boudreau
William Campbell
Katherine Cook
Robert Derosier
Pam Gjettum
Donna Goodspeed
Ron Goodspeed
Eren Kalfaoglu
Helene Kenney
Lionel Ingram
Stacy Penna
Jonathan Ring
Ann Schieber
Caroline Collins Siecke
Peter Smith
Molly Stevenson
Paul Young
Laurie Zwaan

Edward Chase
John Henson
Jeff Hillier
Edward Rowan