Seniors Speak Out

‘Can You Hear Me Now?’: Telephone Communication Has Come A Long Way

This spring, over one hundred years ago, Alexander Graham Bell made the first ever telephone call using his invented contraption—to his assistant in the next room.  Residents of Barclay Friends Continuing Care Community in West Chester share their memories of the first telephones below.


Peter Comerford

“We lived on a farm in an area where a man named Mr. Earl Lawrence owned the phone company,” Peter smiles.  “We were the last town [it seemed] to get a phone.  Mr. Lawrence was a professor at the state university, he had one employee, and this is the way it went: Blanche was the operator, and you made a phone call by picking up [the earpiece] and [turning the crank].  The phones were battery operated, and on our particular road there were 14 phones connected to the line—14 families—and our family’s ring was two shorts and one long.”

“So say you had to call up the veterinarian.  You didn’t pick up the phone and say, ‘Give me 814,’ and so on.  You picked up the receiver and if there was no one on—if you didn’t hear voices—you would ring the operator [who knew everyone].  You would say, ‘I need the vet to stop by, I have a cow for him to look at.’  And she might say, ‘Run over to Arnold’s, the vet might be there.’  Well, Arnold lived two miles down the road the other way.  So she might say, ‘Then I’ll call Florence and ask her to send the vet over.’  Well Florence was Arnold’s wife!”  Who would Peter call if he were making the first phone call in history?  “I think I would call my grandfather,” he answers, “because he would ask, ‘What in the world did you get that thing for?’”


Holly Silverthorne

“We had a black phone—an earlier version—one of the first ear to mouth phones, and it was shaped strangely,” Holly recalls.  “The mouthpiece sort of looked like a daffodil.  The fun of it was listening to people if there was a good argument going on.  Our telephone number was four digits: 1687.  That’s the first thing I grew up learning—children were always being asked, ‘What’s your telephone number?’ and you had to recite it before you went out.  You were meant to be brusque [on the telephone]—sometimes the conversation was very abrupt—much more formal and business-like.”

Holly describes her mother and father speaking on the telephone.  “I was born in New York City, but then we moved to the suburbs.  My father worked at Wanamaker’s and eventually became the buyer for antique furniture.  My mother would say, ‘Daddy called to say he will be late, he missed the commuter train so dinner will be at seven o’clock.’  The telephone was not perfected—there was a lot of static and you were always telling people to speak up.  I had to wait until it was my turn to call,” she adds.  “Mother might be making plans or calling the grocer with a list of the day’s food.  I had an older brother and two older sisters, and they took priority over me.”


Henry Schouten

“My grandmother had a telephone [for public use] at the family hotel,” Henry says.  “Usually middle class people would stay there—it was [located in] the only resort town in the southern part of the Netherlands.  There were a lot of mountains—we called them mountains, but they were really hills, and they had mined limestone there for ages.  There were many caves that were used as hiding places for people during the French Revolution and then later for people to hide from the Germans.  When I was a young man I went with a group of young kids into the caves—later in life I thought, ‘That was a dumb thing to do,’” he laughs.  Now kids just have cell phones.

“The private person generally didn’t have a telephone; it was more for businesses.  I wrote a letter to the electric company once and now, of course, I’d use a telephone.  My parents didn’t get a telephone until after I moved to the United States, and then I’d call them once a month.  Those old phones were so primitive,” he remembers.  “It was not as easy to listen and the person on the other end sounded very far away.  Now you just put someone on speaker and the person is practically in the room with you.”