February 26, 2011

Cheese, telephone wires, and crochet patterns

John Garrett Leigh discusses state telephones in the Economic Review of January 1912. Like other contemporary writers, he acknowledges that Britain is way behind many other countries in adoption of the telephone.  As such, Britain also lags behind when it comes to social cohesion.  The penny post and telegraph have gone some way to strengthening social bonds and the telephone seems to be a “dominating influence.”

He gives his article an international aspect by analysing social use by nation:

America – children use it to ring up friends and ask about homework
Switzerland – housewives ring friends and exchange crochet patterns

And how do British housewives use their telephones?  They ring up their grocers to order meat and cheese.

But British grocers were cunning.  With a telephone order, the customer wasn’t in the shop to inspect the quality or freshness of the food.  So the grocer sent over inferior produce which the housewife would have refused to touch, had she been in the shop in person.  After a while, though, the grocer learned his lesson (he probably lost many customers as a result of some dodgy cheese) and started treating telephone customers the same as those who walked into his shop.  

Leigh reminds British grocers that being scrupulously honest in their business dealings has great ethical value.  I think this was probably the very last time that someone spoke about ethics in the same breath as business conduct.

p.s. A small detail: Leigh’s article appeared in the month when the telephone service was nationalised and taken over by the General Post Office.

February 23, 2011

The visions of a clairvoyant

It had to happen sooner or later, I suppose – a review about a crackpot clairvoyant who ‘sees’ through telephone wires. 

Vincent D. Turvey was a regular clairvoyant and seer who had visions.  In addition, he developed a new skill in “phone-voyance” in 1903.  One day he telephoned a friend and had a vision of the room where the friend was sitting.  Turvey was able to describe not only the room but also the characteristics of a second person in the company of the friend.  We are led to believe that the friend failed to mention the presence of this person.

I do admit to being an ignoramus where clairvoyants are concerned but I fail to see any substantial difference between Turvey’s two types of seership.  He himself makes the differentiation.

In case you are keen to learn more, Turvey wrote a book about his talents in 1911 (cashing in on the new technology?) and even more surprisingly, it has been reprinted in recent years by several publishers (cashing in on books no longer in copyright?)  Amazon has a selection – a gift idea for next Christmas perhaps?

Brightening the home, lightening domestic labour

In 1922 the Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health published an article entitled “The brightening of the home, and the lightening of domestic labour by electrical means” authored by C. H. Wordingham, CBE, electrical engineer.

The title alone was enough to make me curious, but also the date.  I would have thought that by 1922 the householder wouldn’t need to be sold on the benefits of domestic electricity.  But then, old habits die hard.  The writer is trying to sell electricity as a healthy alternative to gas and oil; remember that the article appears in a journal promoting public health.

There is the ready admission that the cost of appliances is still high, though prices will drop in time.  While appliances are still “mysterious” to the man in the street, in time they will become as familiar as coal scuttles and scrubbing brushes are today (i.e. then in 1922).

The article was at pains to point out the health hazards in using old technologies in the home, and thus persuade householders that electricity would be better for them.  Using gas or oil for lighting produced noxious gases and soot which damaged curtains, furnishings and books.  Rooms had to be redecorated frequently; the grime settled everywhere and after a short while a room would become dark and dingy.  Servants had to be paid to clean and wash ornaments and textiles.  Additionally, spending time in such a room took its toll on occupants’ lungs and skin.

Household dust has never ceased to be a problem.  Maids in the 1920s merely redistributed it with their feather dusters instead of removing it completely.  One solution is a “little piece of mechanism” (it is not explicitly named as a ‘vacuum cleaner’) that removes particles and traps them in a bag.

A reverse of the above appliance (presumably a hairdryer?) dries “long fair tresses” after a hair wash and is a “boon” appreciated by mothers.

Let’s not forget too the small appliances that make life more palatable: toasters, kettles, curling tongs or bed warmers.  Yes, the author admits, these are luxuries.  But the today’s luxuries become tomorrow’s essentials, such as the telephone or motor car.  (This is as true now as it ever was.)

The writer asserts that servants had come to embrace electrical appliances (makes their job easier?)  Further, knowing how to operate new technology means they can demand more in the market place.  They now have technical know-how.  The writer further concedes that less and less people (i.e. women) are content to enter domestic service.  There was easier work in shops, offices and factories.  (If I had a choice between a job on a production line and cleaning someone else’s oriental rug, I know what I would choose.)  And since good domestic help was becoming rarer to find and more expensive, it sometimes worked out better to do your own cleaning, with the aid of new domestic appliances.

The National Grid came into existence in the decade after this article so power supply would certainly have been patchy.  Combined with expensive appliances, few households at the bottom end of the social ladder would have had an electricity supply.  They managed as they had done before with existing methods.

The article claims that once people learn about labour-saving devices there is no going back, they insist on having them and follow the easiest route in carrying out domestic chores.  How true!  I’ve always had a vacuum cleaner around the house to clean up messes.  So when my old vacuum cleaner finally gave up the ghost, it was a nightmare having to learn to sweep with a brush and dustpan.

The power of electricity and labour-saving devices in the home brings another issue to the forefront: that of what to do with the time saved.  Nobody sits around in their clean home, twiddling their thumbs wondering what they can do next.  On the contrary, there seems to be even less free time available.  Ruth Schwartz Cowan1 demonstrates that new domestic technologies didn’t lighten the housewife’s load; she ended up working just as hard and just as long as in the ‘good old days.’  Cowan’s thesis is that with the new technology, the housewife no longer needed help from family members to do the chores (the weekly wash used to be a family event) so she ended up doing all the housework alone.  What is more, extra demands were made of her.  People changed their clothes more often and that meant more frequent washing and ironing.  Everyone assumed that since the housewife now had a washing machine, having to wash more clothes wouldn’t be a problem.  The assumption that labour-saving devices create more free time is a fallacy; we merely find more occupations to fill the gap.

This is one factor why I think that the time-saving features of telephone calls led to a greater sense of ‘speeding up’ in life because with the time saved, the caller would have filled his time with other duties.  If he sat around unable to do anything until he received a reply (as would be the case if he had sent a note or telegram), then what would have been the point in using a quicker technology?  Using technologies like these, either in the home or in business, means getting more done in the same amount of time.  Whether this leads to more efficiency is debatable. 

Those that use a new technology, never revert willingly to the old ways.  Once you’ve discovered the joys of telephoning, you forget all about the art of writing letters.

1More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.

February 20, 2011


"Every journal is like a wire carrying a psychological current which winds its way intricately across and through the country, and it is continually crossed and recrossed by thousands of other wires."
R. A. Scott-James, The Influence of the Press.  London: 1913.

Scott-James was describing the news network of journals and newspapers that spread across the country, which was feeding a voracious reading public.  The use of wires as a trope to describe the connectedness of society seems to be gaining ground.  Not surprising since Britain's towns and country roads were very quickly covered with overhead wires that darkened the skies.  The difference between the 'before' and 'after' scenes would have been very stark.

More to the point, the network of communications is anthropomorphised.  Wires or cables are the nerves of the city, carrying electrical impulses with messages, impressions, emotions.  If a person's central nervous system is damaged, he will be reduced to a vegetable state.  If a city's network of wires comes down, the city is crippled and everything comes to a halt.  Tens of thousands of Brooklyn residents found this out the hard way in 1975 when a fire in a New York telephone exchange burned their connections.  The chaos in telephone service was second only to that caused by the 9/11 attack.

As a visual device, wires dominate in Nevinson's Amongst the nerves of the world, painted in 1930.  Telephone wires dissect the air above Fleet Street into angular blocks, St Paul's is visible in the background.  I like the dichotomy inherent in the wires: they connect and unite people and places, yet at the same time cut and separate the scene into smaller, disparate sections.  A truly modern element, this ambiguous 'same, but different.'  The painting shows not only the nerves of the urban body, but also all the other flows of communications: lines of buses and cars running up and down Fleet Street, flanked by streams of pedestrians.  The painting is exhibited by the Museum of London, together with other works by Nevinson.  Enjoy!

February 17, 2011

Women, Work, and Works of Art

BWS’s blog It’s About Time features extraordinary works of art with “uncommon grace,” to use the author’s own words.

The title of the latest blog post caught my eye: "19th & 20th Century Women Working".
I’m not sure what I expected to find, perhaps depictions of women using technologies in their daily chores, or at work in an office.  (Here I admit I have been prejudiced by an ‘obsession’ with new technologies of that era.)  But I was pleasantly surprised to see women working at all manner of simple jobs, without mechanical aids.  Predictably, most women are shown doing something connected with food.

My preconceptions, I see, have coloured my judgement.  The phrase ‘working women’ immediately brings to my mind scenes of women labouring in factories, or working switchboards, or scribbling at office desks.  If not in paid employment, then the woman would be at home - cooking, cleaning, caring – with or without the aid of labour-saving devices.  Yet women work everywhere and everytime, paid and unpaid, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes not.  There is work, and then there is work.  Call me a Marxist/Feminist if you like, but if every woman woke up tomorrow morning, deciding to take the week off from domestic chores and disappear, then the whole western capitalist system would collapse, IMHO.

By necessity, some selection process would have been necessary before showing the paintings but I can imagine that there aren’t too many works of art that show women, say, using a vacuum cleaner, or working on the production line in a factory.  On this point, I would love to be proved wrong.  From an aesthetic viewpoint, bucolic scenes of women harvesting or caring for children are much more palatable and leave our sensibilities undisturbed.

February 4, 2011

Marketing ICTs - the hard sell

A lady came knocking on my door this afternoon.  She was a sales representative for Deutsche Telekom and was bravely trying to recover customers that had gone for rival companies (Alice, Vodafone, O2 and suchlike).  She politely enquired how much my monthly phone bill was and when I told her, she had to admit that, yes, I did have a point in defecting from the mighty DT.

In reality, I rarely use my landline phone to make calls.  It's infinitely cheaper for family members to communicate with mobiles (and cards, not contracts); even more so when we all belong to the same company.  As for long distance and overseas calls, there is, thankfully, Skype.  Who in his right mind would use a landline today to telephone abroad?  Not surprisingly, international Skype calls were three times as many as landline calls in 2010Besides that, there are so many mobile companies offering landline connections with internet, mobile telephony, television, etc. that it really is a buyer's market and it pays to shop around.  Virtually everyone nowadays has a telephone of one sort or another, which means the companies are chasing after smaller and smaller pieces of a diminishing pie.  So the nice lady from Telekom with her heavy bag of leaflets and tariffs was sadly wasting her time with me.

This set me thinking about how companies at the turn of the century went about attracting new customers.  They didn't have the benefit of huge billboards, television or radio commercials to spread the word to a wide audience.  I'm not sure how early the first ads would have been placed in newspapers, journals and magazines - some of the people who read and could afford these publications may have been able to afford a telephone connection too.  But would they have found a need for a connection that justified the cost?

Companies that offered telephone services in the first decades weren't really sure what people could actually do with a telephone.  The obvious answer (one-to-one communication or 'mere' chatting) wasn't as obvious to the late Victorians as it is to us.  Hence, we are amused by the quaint reports of concerts broadcast over the telephone, or church services, or distribution of news and information.  I think the mistake here is that they conceived of the telephone network as something for public, i.e. mass, benefit rather than a private medium.  What happened to make them realise they were going in the wrong direction?  What made people think the telephone was a suitable medium for public entertainment and dissemination of news?  How did the telephone companies, and later the General Post Office, come to 'discover sociability' (in the words of Claude Fischer)?  

It will be interesting to find out how the GPO sold new connections and if, indeed, they had a tangible marketing campaign to attract new subscribers.
  • which type of customer did they have in mind (gender, social class, occupation, type of residence, location)?
  • which reasons would they cite to a potential customer for needing a telephone?
  • what benefits could the GPO, as a company, offer the customer?
  • how did the GPO position itself against its competitors (telegraph, post, messengers)?
I predict a prodigious amount of research ahead of me!

February 2, 2011

How railwaymen made their coffee in the pre-Starbucks epoch

Not really connected with the social history of telephones, but this anonymous railwayman (c.1901) describes how he made his lunchtime coffee.
“Railwaymen’s coffee was a mixture of coffee and chicory but I believe it was a species of bark.  A percolator was not necessary in its production.  Water was made hot in a beer can and coffee dumped in and boiled for a minute or two.  Then condensed milk was dumped in (Goat Brand), stirred into the brew and sugar added.  I can still smell it.  That kind of coffee isn’t made any more.  Progress killed it.”
Presumably he drank the contents of the beer can before using it for boiling water.  His most telling comment for me is his last one about 'progress' - not always welcomed with open arms by everyone. 

p.s. On his fourteenth birthday he passed his telegraph examination; his wages rose immediately to 8 shillings a week.  He was sent to work in Earl's Court station to man the telegraph circuits, telephone exchange and record the comings and goings of trains through the station. 
Source: W. MacQueen Pope, Give Me Yesterday, 1957.

The Condition of England

C. F. G. Masterman held a somewhat pessimistic view of how mankind was using new technologies.  He was not alone in observing a marked "speeding up" of life, but he also commented that a wasteful lifestyle was becoming fashionable.  The raised standard of living, however, did not mean more comfort but rather more ostentation.  In this way, it was difficult for those on low incomes to keep up with a lifestyle that was slowly becoming the norm.
"But life will be no happier and no richer for such an acceptance; it will merely have become more impossible for those who […] are unequal to the demands of such a standard.  And the same is true of the multiplication of meals; of the rise in the price of rent in certain districts in London, for example, because every one wants to live there; of numberless exactions and extortions which have grown up in a society whose members are ‘like wealthy men who care not how they give’."

Masterman denigrates the new car owners for "driving abroad in furious guise," breaking the speed limit, and destroying English rural tranquility.  He attributes their behaviour to the motorists' need to alleviate boredom.  The competition in consumption won't stop until everyone (that can afford it) has a car, house, abundant food, clothes, flowers, etc. etc.  In this respect, he likens the race to consume with the armaments race.  He concludes, of course, that such an obsession with material possessions does not bring happiness, nor does it make for a better economy.  (Hasn't Masterman read 'The Fable of the Bees'?)

One only needs to glimpse at Masterman's background (social-family connections, political involvement, wartime activities, and so on) to understand why he wrote what he did.  By way of example, he moved into a working-class London tenement to learn first hand what conditions were like.  After such an 'experiment,' no wonder he freely censures middle class profligacy.

This is why I believe Masterman is not merely objecting to technology on the grounds of being opposed to 'progress' and all things new.  His objections to this rampant consumerism and affinity for materialism are based on moral considerations.

C. F. G. Masterman, The Condition of England. 1909

G. M. Young, on motor cars and trains

Talking in 1952, the historian of Victorian Britain, G. M. Young, remembers his life as a young man in Britain in 1902, the year of Edwardian VII's coronation.
“The political changes, the social changes, yes, even the scientific achievements of the Victorian age had left the outer fabric of our life very much what it always had been.  Trains went faster, of course, but not very much faster, and the station fly still clopped-clopped to the country inn with straw on the boards – I suppose to keep your feet warm.  The motor car was a toy … and the aeroplane, well, that, of course, was a fairy tale: something for H. G. Wells to write stories about."
Young sees no earth shattering changes following the appearance of so many new technologies: life went on as before.  He was also old enough at the time (20) to appreciate the realities surrounding these new achievements.  In criticism, one could charge Young with forgetfulness that comes with advancing years, in his account of his past youth.  Was he viewing his past through the lens of nostalgia? - most people after middle age do seem to go on about 'the good old days.'  I like to think this is not the case.  We cannot imagine life without our motor cars, or telephones, or microwave ovens, or whatever.  And when we try to picture such a life, we feel we are reverting to a primitive state.  I think that we transfer this feeling to past generations and wonder at how they could possibly manage in the pre-tech era.  There is a tendency to inscribe past technological achievements with too much 'revolution' where none existed.  

Unknown to us, our predecessors did manage and quite well, too.  For them, horse-speed was quick enough for their needs.  If they needed, say, one hour to get across town, instead of today's ten minutes, then they set off in good time.  As and when new technologies appeared, people gradually assimilated them into their social practices - assuming, of course, they had the inclination, opportunity, and the money to do so.  Otherwise, they carried on as they had done before; old and new ways proceeded in tandem.

Young believes that England then was a good country for gentlemen to live in.
"And it all rested on two things – an income tax so moderate that it was hardly felt; and an unlimited supply of cheap efficient domestic service.  Pull those pillars down and that social hierarchy topples.  That also we could not foresee …" [my emphasis]
But putting it bluntly, this all boils down to money (again).  Low taxes and cheap servants ensuring life is comfortable means, yes, a good life for the privileged.  I am struck by the reference to cheap domestics.  It reminds me of the Postmaster General's explanation of the new telephone's slow dispersal: 'we have so many messenger boys ready to take messages, that's why we don't need a telephone.  The Americans, on the other hand, have no domestic servants, so they do need a telephone service.'

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.