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.

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