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Memories of Ma Bell

These days, it seems, there is nowhere you can go and be free from its demands.

Nowhere that it won’t insist on your attention.

Nowhere that it won’t interrupt anything else you might have had planned.

And nothing — nothing at all — that will stop the telemarketers from making it into what seems at time to be the instrument of the devil.

openclipart-user-andinuryadinThe telephone is everywhere these days. Including, for many of us, in a pocket or a purse every waking minute of every waking day … and on the bedstand next to us when we sleep.

Omnipresent. Ubiquitous. Annoying.

But it was not always so, was it?

A research trip to Chicago’s Newberry Library last year reminded me that home telephones were still rarities in the 1930s and 1940s.1 I found a listing for a delicatessen my paternal grandparents briefly owned in the 1930s2… but not even a single home telephone for any of my Chicago relatives.

And there was a reason why news from the war front was sent by telegram — it was the only quick way to get the news to many American homes. As late as January 1948, my mother used the telegraph system to ask her cousin Fred Gottlieb to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, and he replied the same way. (I loved his answer, by the way, when I found it in my mother’s papers after her death: “Am getting married January 22nd but will arrange honeymoon so I can ditch her long enuf to escort you. Fred.”3)

So there was a time when being able to communicate by voice — communicate, not get harangued by sales pitches — was a big deal. First patented in the United States in 1876, the telephone spread to nearly 49,000 users by 1880, 600,000 by 1900, 2.2 million by 1905, 5.8 million by 1910. But it was the post-war prosperity that brought the telephone into most homes — 30 million as of 1948, 80 million by the 1960s, 175 million by 1980.4

And when it finally arrived in our homes, the telephone was a family gamechanger for most of us, wasn’t it? Remember back, all those years ago,5 when the telephone was something that only existed in one room of the house — if it was there at all — and, when it rang, all the people in the house hoped it would be for them?

When it was amazing that good news — and bad news — traveled so fast:

• My sister and I didn’t have to wait until our father came home to tell us that we had a brand-new younger sibling when the brother just younger than I am was born; he telephoned the neighbor who was caring for us, and she came out and told us.

• But I also didn’t have to wait when I was a 16-year-old college freshman, away from home on my own for the first time, and it was the telephone that let me know that my Uncle Barrett had lost his fight with a brain tumor.

When sometimes you had to listen to the ring to know if it was for someone at your house at all? Many homes in rural and suburban areas hooked into what were called party lines — shared or group telephone subscriptions. In 1950, 75% of residential customers were on party lines; that dropped to 27% by 1965. And “telephones on party lines would ring with a particular pattern unique to a household, so the customer would only answer the phone that rang with ‘their’ ring.”6

And that brings to mind what is, to me, my absolute favorite family telephone story.

It seems that back a kazillion years ago, when my mother’s parents were first married, they lived for a time with my grandfather’s older sister Addie (Cottrell) Harris and her family in Wichita Falls, Texas.

My grandfather Clay, born in April 1898,7 was the youngest of 10 known siblings; Addie, born in March 1881,8 was 17 years his senior. By the time my grandparents married at the grand old age of 18, Addie already had teenaged children, including a son who was only a little younger than my grandparents.

Sam Walter Harris, born in 1902,9 was always called Pete. And Pete fell madly in love with his 18-year-old aunt by marriage, Opal.

As the story goes, he made a right nuisance of himself in what everyone thought was a case of puppy love. The following-her-around. The deep sighs. The calf eyes. And he was heartbroken when Clay and Opal prepared to move to Oklahoma.

So he extracted a promise from Opal: when Clay died, he got her to promise, she would then marry Pete.

The years rolled on for the Cottrells and the Harrises. Pete went off to serve in World War II, lived and worked in St. Louis after the war, and went home to Texas to live with and care for his mother.10

And he never married. He would often remind my grandmother of her promise and she would often, with a smile, remind him that Clay wasn’t dead yet.

My grandparents lived in Oklahoma,11 in Texas,12 finally in Virginia, where they lived on a farm owned by their oldest son, my uncle Billy.13

Now for the longest time there was no telephone at the farm. If we needed to make a call, we would drive — or often walk — to the home of a neighbor family named Holland or to the general store that gave the post office its name: Kents Store, Virginia.

And then came the day in the 1960s when, finally, a phone was installed. A party line, to be sure, but instant communication! The ability to reach out to the world at large — and for the world to reach in!

And then came that magical moment when that phone rang for the very first time. Everyone froze, listening to the rings. Would it be…? Could it be…? Would it be for someone at the farm?

And it was. My grandmother reached out and picked up the receiver. In her oh-so-soft Texas drawl, she said hello.

And a scratchy voice on the other end spoke up.

It was Pete.

And the first words heard on that marvelous device?

“Opal, isn’t that son of a (bleep) dead yet?”

Family stories about the telephone.

We all have ’em.

What’s yours?

Image courtesy of user andinuryadin

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “The delicatessen,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 13 Sep 2014 ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
  2. Chicago Telephone Directory, Summer 1930 (Chicago: Illinois Bell Telephone Co., 1930), 474, entry for Geissler, Hugo; microfilm, Newberry Library, Chicago.
  3. Western Union telegram, Fred Gottlieb to Hazel Cottrell, 14 Jan 1948; privately held by author.
  4. 1870s-1940s-Telephone,” Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast, Elon University School of Communications ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
  5. Okay, “all those years ago” for those of us whose hair is turning grey, okay?
  6. Party Lines,” AT&T Tech Channel, AT&T Archives ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
  7. Virginia Department of Health, death certif. no. 70-026728, Clay Rex Cottrell, 21 Sep 1970; Division of Vital Records, Richmond.
  8. Texas Department of Health, death certif. no. 38558 (1974), Addie Lee Harris, 6 May 1974; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  9. Texas Department of Health, death certif. no. 60782 (1971), Sam Walter Harris, 5 Aug 1971; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  10. “Early days recalled by Iowa Park pioneer,” likely from Wichita Falls (Texas) Daily Times, undated clipping, circa 1970; digital image of the original held by a great granddaughter, Odessa, Texas. The date was calculated by reference to the age of the subject, Addie Cottrell Harris, then said to be 89, who was born in 1881.
  11. 1920 U.S. census, Tillman County, Oklahoma, Haskell Twp., population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 170, p. 256(B)(stamped), dwelling/family 227, C.R. “Cottorell” household; digital image, ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 1488.
  12. 1930 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 2, p. 247A (stamped), dwelling 287, family 317, Clay R. Cottrell; digital image, ( : accessed 13 Jan 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2376. Also, 1940 U.S. census, Midland County, Texas, Midland City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 165-3A, page (illegible)(B) (stamped), sheet 7(B), household 161, C R Cottrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 20 Sep 2013); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 4105
  13. See Judy G. Russell, “End of an era,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 31 Mar 2012 ( : accessed 6 Feb 2015).
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