The home telephone was a communal invention from the outset. “When the telephone rang, friends and family gathered ’round, as mesmerized by its magic flow of electrons as they would later be by the radio,” according to Once Upon a Telephone, a lighthearted 1994 social history of the technology. After the advent of the telephone, in the late 19th century, and through the mid-20th century, callers relied on switchboard operators who knew their customers’ voices, party lines were shared by neighbors (who would often eavesdrop on one another’s conversations), and phone books functioned as a sort of map of a community.
The early telephone’s bulky size and fixed location in the home made a phone call an occasion—often referred to in early advertisements as a “visit” by the person initiating the call. (One woman quoted in Once Upon a Telephone
recalls the phone as having the “stature of a Shinto shrine” in her childhood home.) There was phone furniture—wooden vanities that housed phones in hallways of homes, and benches built for the speaker to sit on so they could give their full attention to the call. Even as people were defying time and space by speaking with someone miles away, they were firmly grounded in the space of the home, where the phone was attached to the wall.For the rest, click here