Communications, 1909 Style

kg-grabaphone-1909-th-300Today I wrote a scene in my work in progress in which my heroine receives a telephone call. The year is 1909. Of course, I knew that there were telephones, and she is from a wealthy family in New York City, so they would undoubtedly have one. But then I wondered how common it was to speak by telephone, and how many households actually had them. I stumbled upon this wonderful encapsulation of the United States in 1909:


  • The average life expectancy was 47 years.
  • Only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub.
  • Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone.
  • There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower!
  • The average wage in 1909 was 22 cents per hour.
  • The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year .
  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year,
  • A dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • More than 95 percent of all births took place at HOME .
  • Ninety percent of all doctors had NO COLLEGE EDUCATION!  Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press AND the government as ‘substandard. ‘
  • Sugar cost four cents a pound.
  • Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
  • Coffee was fifteen cents a pound.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.
  • Five leading causes of death were: 1. Pneumonia and influenza 2. Tuberculosis 3. Diarrhea 4. Heart disease 5. Stroke
  • The American flag had 45 stars.
  • The population of Las Vegas , Nevada, was only 30!!!!
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • There was no Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
  • Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write.
  • Only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available over the counter at the local corner drugstores. Back then pharmacists said, ‘Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind,regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health’
  • Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help.
  • There were about 230 reported murders in the ENTIRE ! U.S.A. !
  • Read more:

That’s a pretty good snapshot to compare that time to ours in a meaningful way. And yet, it still isn’t enough to give me a sense of how my heroine would feel about getting a telephone call, where the telephone would be in her house, what kind of telephone she would have, or even what she would say when she picked it up and before she hung up. In my mind I pictured the archetypal Candlestick phone. But Rose could have used one of the early “grabaphones,” phones where the mouthpiece and receiver were in one handset. Although dial telephones had been invented by 1909, in New York, the exchange was a manual one, where calls were completed by operators, not by patrons dialing a number. So Rose’s phone would most likely not have had a dial. Then there is the issue of how people used phones. One blog features a series of postcards showing how having a telephone could help one out in any number of emergencies. In these days of ubiquitous cell phones, it is hard to imagine that anyone would need to have the use of a phone explained. Already by that time telephones featured in silent films, in the media, and in the iconography, and the job of telephone operator was well established as a female occupation. I wonder how that came to be, exactly. Perhaps the servility of the job was seen as suitable for women, or there were some who were simply smart enough to see a good opportunity and cornered the market. At the time, textile worker, domestic servant, shop girl, teacher, nurse were the most common occupations. Of course, the story of how Edison suggested saying “hello” instead of “ahoy” to answer the telephone is pretty well known. I can easily imagine people shouting when they spoke, too, not quite believing that the person so far away could hear them. I’ve assembled lots of images of 1909 phones on my Pinterest page. Nowadays, when even the idea of a dial is fairly antiquated, I always find it refreshing to dig around and really try to put myself in the mindset of someone for whom a phone call was a momentous occasion.

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