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