#MyrtleMondays: Ahoy-hoy! The Victorian Telephone

Are you (or your parents) lost without your cell phone? Is making calls even what you use it for most? Imagine life without constant, instant access to help, casual conversation, or ordering take-out. Let’s have a look at one of the innovations that connected the Victorian world.

When we first meet Myrtle Hardcastle, her Investigations are hampered by the inconvenience of not having home phone service. But that situation doesn’t last forever. Progress marches on, and in Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #4, In Myrtle Peril, Myrtle finally realizes her technological ambition: the Hardcastles get a telephone! (They also get a typewriter. Read More: QWERTY)

In In Myrtle Peril, Myrtle gets an urgent late-night summons by telephone…

One of the most world-shifting inventions of the Victorian age, telephony was an outgrowth of the telegraph (developed in the 1830s-40s), and initially used the same networks as telegraph wires.  In Britain, the telegraph wires ran alongside railway tracks, bringing instant long-distance communication throughout the British Isles.

Read More: All Aboard! Trains in Victorian England

Queen Victoria receives England’s first long distance telephone call at her retreat on the Isle of Wight, 1878. Instantly smitten, she tried to buy the device from Alexander Graham Bell.

Happily, it did not take too long for Her Majesty and her subjects to enjoy the modern marvel. Post offices—which already offered telegraph service—installed telephones for public use, while businesses like hotels and banks signed up for their own subscriptions.

American brochure (from a familiar brand!) advertising phone booths for businesses: “The mail is quick; telegraph is quicker, but long distance telephone is instantaneous, and you don’t have to wait for an answer.”

Outdoor phone booths—known as kiosks—proliferated, as well. Images of early English standalone kiosks like Myrtle would have used are hard to come by, but this illustration shows a police telephone callbox in Chicago (being used, interestingly enough, by the police themselves!):

“First Police Box in Chicago,” 1882. The young lad waiting outside the booth might be the attendant, on hand to take the fee from members of the public and explain the workings of the device to newcomers. (One hopes the police didn’t have to pay to call themselves.)

Soon the popularity and convenience of telephony reached everyday middle class consumers. Already familiar with public phones, they wanted them in their homes as well. The device spread far more rapidly in its native America than it did in England, where home phones were not ubiquitous until the 1920s and 30s. (A British Post Office employee explained the disparity: “There are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind.”)

Still, that did not prevent some forward-thinking early adopters from jumping on the bandwagon!

This trade card may or may not be advertising a telephone; it was common for businesses to give away decorative images (apropos of nothing) with their logos as promotional items.

These images show the variations in models available to 1880s households. The device the Hardcastles get is more up-to-the-minute still, a candlestick model invented in 1892.

I selected this model, naturally, because I already happened to have one on hand! (Two, in fact [what use is a single telephone?]: a working set of toy telephones. Husband C.J. worked in the telecommunications industry for many years, so these things happen.) But I made certain that Myrtle could in fact have had a candlestick phone, even if they weren’t yet ubiquitous.

The telephone brought such rapid cultural changes that phone companies issued etiquette guides to help users navigate the new world’s demands.

And why “Ahoy-hoy,” you ask? The new technology required a clearly understood greeting when answering calls. Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell advocated the age-old nautical greeting “Ahoy” (or Ahoy-hoy), but American industrialist Thomas Edison—whose networks dominated the American telephone landscape—preferred the much more modern “Hello.”  Because telephony took off in the U.S., we have sadly lost the colorful and delightful “Ahoy.” Alas. But give it a try the next time someone actually calls you on your own cell phone, and bring back some of the Victorian novelty.


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