Cultural historian Edwin Redslob (1884-1973), like Walter Benjamin, wrote a retrospective of his childhood years, where he talks of the arrival of new technologies in his family. (Also described here.)
He remembers the coming of electric light into his home. Up until then, the family used kerosene lamps in all the rooms. A line of them was set up in the hallway, ready for use once it became dark. Despite the smell and inconvenience, kerosene lamps are intimately tied in his memory with hearing his father read. After supper, father would read out loud to the family, while other members would draw or work on their stamp collection, under the dim, but warm, glow of the lamp. These were “cosy hours” in Redslob’s childhood memories. In contrast, electric lighting was “unpleasantly bright.” The light illuminated too much – not only did it light up the room well, but it also dispersed the cosiness of old, like bright sunshine dissipating morning mist. Electricity was expensive for the family in the beginning and it seemed counterproductive to dim the light bulbs or use a lamp shade. His father, however, maintained the tradition of a kerosene lamp for use in his own study.
Redslob also remembers his first encounter with the telephone. These were of the kind that were affixed to the wall and you used a crank handle to call the exchange. Accompanying his father to the bank one day, the clerk showed the boy the new telephone and said he could make a telephone call. Young Redslob was confused – he didn’t know anyone he could call, nor what he should say. The clerk suggested he ring the local hotel to ask if Director Müller had arrived from Berlin. The boy spoke into the telephone and a hotel porter told him that indeed the director had arrived. Once outside in the street, Redslob sneaked away from his father and ran to the hotel that he had just telephoned. It took him at least five minutes. He was amazed at the time difference between telephoning the hotel and running to the hotel to speak to the porter in person.
His father bought him a toy telephone – two cardboard boxes joined with a piece of string. It kept Redslob and his brother amused for hours. They climbed up their garden trees and tried to hold a telephone conversation, but without much success of course. Simple face-to-face conversation was much easier, he observes. But he still enjoyed his new ‘telephone’; in common with most boys, he liked it because it was modern and technical.