In our technology-crazed society it can be quite nostalgic to now and then think back to the time when communication wasn’t instant and mobile, and life seemed a bit simpler. Which is why I was fascinated to come across an advertisement brochure for ‘The Domestic Telephone Set’ which the library received in 1909.

 Although the cover of the brochure may not look very exciting, once opened the reader cannot fail to be impressed by the description of a product which must have been an extremely useful addition to larger households.

The set comprises two telephones connected with a flexible cord. Each set should be placed in the room in which it will be most convenient, and detailed instructions are given in the brochure on how to arrange the sets so that the cord is well hidden, including how to pass the cord through doorways: “cut the top corner nearest the hinge away with a pen-knife, this will allow the cord plenty of room when the door is shut and at the same time will not disfigure the door perceptibly”. I like to think that the members of the household were so eager to see the telephones set up and in use, any obstruction to the cord was simply hacked away with a pen-knife! How exciting and revolutionary these sets must have been, and what fun the Edwardians must have had with them, especially if children got their hands on them – I’m sure that endless pranks must have been played!

With the telephones well installed, lengthy directions then follow on how to make and receive calls. To call someone in another room in the house you must “take the combination receiver and transmitter off its cradle, holding it by its black handle, with the fingers pressing down the inserted ebonite press piece, holding the earpiece well against the ear.” In other words, pick up the phone and press the one button that is on the set to make the call! The convoluted instructions are a real eye-opener to the novelty factor these objects must have had at the time, especially when making and receiving calls is second nature to us all now. The party who answers the telephone is then given identical instructions, but they then have the added responsibility of saying “Yes!” into the mouthpiece, “for if you do not speak the party calling will not know that anyone is at the instrument at the other end”. I must remember to say that next time someone calls my mobile, although I’m sure it won’t go down too well with the person calling.

There was an amusing surprise on the final page of the brochure (or maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised after three years cataloguing Tower Project material), when arguably the most important use for the telephone set came to light. Images of a rather well-to-do looking lady of the house relaxing in bed with a book, using her telephone to call her maid below stairs! Now that’s what I call luxury. I wonder if you can still buy these phones anywhere? … Right, I’m off to check eBay.

  • The Domestic Telephone Set. Classmark 1910.12.56