Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Wednesday's Random Not-Quite-Slang O-rama: 1800s telephone etiquette

Taking a little different tack on today's posting with a peek into recent research and my findings and frustrations.

What do you say when you greet someone over the phone? It's probably some version of "Hello." I'm betting it's not "Ahoy!" However, if Alexander Graham Bell had had his way, that might indeed be what you'd holler down the (wireless) line....

Ring-a-ding-ding, 19th century-style.
Image by Momentmal from Pixabay

One recent night as the midnight hour struck, I became a little over-obsessed over how phone calls were handled in the 19th century. (Late at night is never a good time for me to get obsessed.) I stumbled upon an NPR article explaining that whereas Bell preferred the term Ahoy! as a telephonic greeting, Thomas Edison preferred Hello! (We know who won that tug-of-war.) This passage also caught my late-night attention:
... [T]he first phone book ever published, by the District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878 (with 50 subscribers listed) told users to begin their conversations with "a firm and cheery 'hulloa.'"
I knew there was a telephone exchange in Leadville, Colorado, in 1879, thanks to Leadville silver baron Horace Tabor. (In fact, there's a wonderful article in Colorado Magazine, dated 1928, talking about the early years of telephone, right here.) And San Francisco apparently had its first telephone directory in 1878. 

Wouldn't it be wonderful, thinks I, if I could find a digital copy of that early San Francisco phone book and read their instructions on telephone etiquette and how to use a telephone??

The minutes ticked by as I buzzed around the internet, looking for such a directory. Alas, all I could dig up was a version that had been typed up from the original in 1952. This transcribed version only included names and addresses and the cryptic note: 
Names preceded by stars are connected with the CENTRAL OFFICE SYSTEM and can be switched into private connection with each other.
I finally uncovered a text version of the 1893 San Francisco Telephone Directory, which although much later in time than my 1882 setting, includes this fascinating information on page 2:
"HERE'S 64."  
At least half the time consumed in every telephone connection, is used in ascertaining who is talking at each end. If subscribers will adopt the following style, they will be surprised at the saving of time and annoyance to themselves 
Suppose Smith's Telephone number is 741 and he desires to converse with Jones, whose telephone number is 64. 
FIRST: Smith calls Central Office and says: "741 wants 64" and waits, with telephone at his ear. SECOND: Central Office rings Jones' Bell.
THIRD: Jones rings his bell once in reply and without waiting further, says, "here's 64, Mr. Jones;"
FOURTH: Smith then says, "this is Mr. Smith," and proceeds with his conversation.
The lines connecting San Francisco with the interior towns are owned by the SUNSET TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH CO. If subscribers will kindly observe the following Instructions, they will receive quicker and more satisfying service:
1.--When you wish to connect with any interior town, call the local Exchange as usual.

2.--Operator: "What is it, please?"

2.--Subscriber: "Sunset room."
(Central office then connects the Sunset room and--)
3.--Operator: "Here's the Sunset;"

3.--Subscriber: "Give me No. 42 Oakland;"

4.--Operator: "Who is talking, please?"

4.--Subscriber: "Mr. Jones."

5.--Operator: "Whom shall we ask for, please?'

5.--Subscriber: (The subscriber will now name the person with whom he particularly desires to converse, or tell the operator to call up "Anybody".)

Then hang up your telephone: your order is now fully understood and when we ring your bell again, we will have Mr. Brown at Oakland, he will know it is Mr. Jones at telephone No. 46, San Francisco wants him, and both will be saved a lot of preliminary "hello,"  "Is that Mr. Jones," "Who are you," etc., etc.
There it is, in the very last paragraph: the word "hello."

Of course, this is from 1893, and since my current work-in-progress has a bit of a nautical flavor, you can bet your bottom dollar I'm going to find a way to slip in an "Ahoy!" here and there.

I also have a little more direction as to what might be said and heard as my protagonist Inez  Stannert attempts to eavesdrop on a telephone conversation in the next room in 1882 San Francisco....
"Ahoy there, sailor...."
Les bienfaits du téléphone Abeillé, Jack , Dessinateur Entre 1904 et 1912 20e siècle Petit Palais, musée des Beaux-arts de la Ville de Paris PPD4790 CC0


Liz V. said...

Unfortunately, not digital but NYC library has a collection of directories

And will send through GR, an etiquette book, if I can find again. Along lines of "Hello Central"

Gloria Bostic said...

Fascinating! And now my phone announces who's calling before I even answer it. ;)

Ann Parker said...

Hi Liz! Thank you! I will go check out GR. What a week... it just slid right by me. I hope you are having a nice weekend!

Ann Parker said...

Hello Gloria!
Quite amazing the changes that have occurred in telephonic technology, right? :-)