Gender, Class and Telephone Culture

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As the 19th century came to a close, the telephone was well on its way to revolutionizing communication on a global scale. Like the telegraph before it, the telephone addressed the tyranny of distance that plagued other forms of communication. Methods of instant wire communication like the telegraph and telephone were both, at least initially, marketed toward a male business minded consumer base. In contrast to the telegraph, the telephone managed to find success as a domestic communication device. The early success of the telephone for personal communication purposes is particularly interesting because hinged on the use and practices of non-traditional consumers.

As noted in The Telephone and America chapter of “America Calling”, most industry leaders in the 19th century approached telephony as the logical evolution of telegraphy, treating both media in a similar fashion. As such, the telephone was marketed and publicly accepted as a masculine business tool strictly to be used by professionals. Both the weaknesses and strengths of early telephony when compared to telegraphy helped to release the medium from the restraint of its male/business only label. The telephone was far more accessible than the telegraph. Telephone users could communicate directly with one another without the burden of physically going to the telegraph office. The fact that home telegraph systems never took off also indicates the knowledge barrier that separated the general population from the expert class (as discussed by Carolyn Marvin) was too much to overcome, whereas home telephone use was less intimidating.

Accessibility seemed to drive many upper class businessmen to become leery of telephone use, and the nature of the device clashed with many accepted social norms of the time. Concerns of privacy in particular made businessmen uneasy about the telephone. In its earliest iterations telephone technology required individuals to yell into the receiver and strain to hear what the person on the other line was saying. Early domestic lines were also prone to “cross-talk” which caused phone users to hear other telephone conversations in addition to their own (Martin 53). The ubiquity of cross-talk lead to a fear of nefarious line listening being practiced by other telephone subscribers and telephone operators. The press at the time went so far as to declare “an end to privacy” (Martin 53). Many wealthy telephone subscribers demanded private lines to deal with issues of indiscretion, however, private lines could not solve all of the issues surrounding the intrusive nature of the telephone. Telephone based communication was viewed by many in the bourgeois class as intrinsically invasive because the ability to call another person at home at any point violated accepted Victorian era social norms. It was if the telephone was a door to the home unable to close and accessible to all.

Issues related to class and gender fueled the controversy surrounding telephonic communication and eventually became instrumental to the domestication of the telephone. The telephone first made its way into domestic space by businessmen interested in connecting their homes to their offices. This left the telephone in the company of housewives while husbands were away at work. The simple notion of constant access to the outside world was, in the words of Martin, a situation which shocked late-Victorian women because “the barriers that there society had built to preserve privacy did not work with the telephone, and there was no time to construct new ones” (55). In order to reinforce the telephone as a male controlled medium, women were repeatedly reminded of the proper (i.e. Victorian gender role reinforcing) way to use the device. Women were to use the phone for shopping and to arrange social engagements. Both of these uses were advertised as ways to streamline common domestic duties and conveniently benefited husbands as well.  Telephone use by women which did not have some sort of benefit for men was of course frowned upon.  Despite the fact that conversation (even gossip) is an important social process (Fischer 231) social calls made by women were considered problematic. Men insisted that telephone use should be purposeful and efficient. Social telephone conversation loosened the male grip on Victorian women who they feared would come in contact with strangers or, heaven forbid, experience a tiny sliver of the world independently.

People outside of the bourgeois upper class also had a major impact on the cultural identity of the telephone. In a sharp contrast to early urban phone use, poorer rural communities relied heavily on shared party-lines to communicate via telephone. Rural communities were frequently ignored by the Bell monopoly and serviced by independent phone companies relying on the inexpensive party lines. While businessmen did everything in their power to combat those who might intentionally (or unintentionally) listen in on conversations, rural communities viewed listening in on the conversations of others as something everyone did to participate in community life (Martin 61). For people living in rural areas, especially women, the telephone was the only way to break out of an endless cycle of monotonous isolation and feel connected to the rest of the world (or at least a few neighbors).

The extensive practice of women and people in rural communities using the telephone shifted telephone culture dramatically toward more social uses. For most of the 20th century the telephone was viewed not as a male business tool, but primarily as a social feminine device.  In fact the telephone became so popular that some developed anxiety over a perceived loss of more authentic face to face conversation. Fischer notes that there is no evidence corroborating telephone use with a loss of direct human contact. Additionally, it’s fair to ask how much value face to face socialization has in the first place. If anything, the telephone provided a means of long distance socialization and efficient communication which sustained relationships and increased social behavior in a manner which was previously impossible.

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