Phoning it in…part 2

During that first decade of the 20th century, lives and times changed forever due to the extension of telephone service within Kendall’s towns and even to rural areas. I briefly covered the extension of phone service into the county, as well as the excitement that the arrival of this new communications technology in my last post. This time, let’s take a look at the effect of introducing telephone systems in small towns and on farms.

While folks were initially excited to participate in the telephone communications revolution—because that’s exactly what it was—more than a few residents were uneasy about what both the seen and unforeseen effects would be.

Downtown Oswego about 1878, two decades before utility poles and wires would mar the downtown streetscape. (Little White School Museum collection)

The east side of Main Street in downtown Oswego about 1878, two decades before utility poles and wires would mar the downtown streetscape. (Little White School Museum collection)

Telephone service arrived in Oswego and Yorkville in 1897, followed by another technological marvel in 1900, the interurban trolley line. The line linked downtown Aurora with downtown Yorkville, running through downtown Oswego. Hourly interurban service allowed local folks to commute to jobs and schools in Aurora and to easily and quickly make business trips. The electric line’s first run every morning was the freight and baggage car’s trip that dropped off fresh baked bread and other items on its way south and then picked up milk from area dairy farmers and other such things on it’s return trip north. But in late 1900, it was just getting a good start, and the electric wires that provided the cars’ motive power were still being strung, right beside the existing web of telephone wires.

By 1903, about when this photo was taken on Main Street looking north, wires for two telephone companies and electrical lines for the interurban trolley were strung on poles all over the downtown area. Not all residents were happy with the change. (Little White School Museum photo)

By 1903, about when this photo was taken on Main Street looking north, wires for two telephone companies and electrical lines for the interurban trolley were strung on poles all over the downtown area. Not all residents were happy with the change. (Little White School Museum photo)

A couple years before, crews for both the Bell System’s Chicago Telephone Company and the competing Northern Illinois Telephone Company had finished stringing their respective firms’ lines. The result was an unsightly tangle of wires where just a few months before, none had existed.

As Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank observed in his “Oswego” news column on Dec. 26, 1900: “The telephone people were busy here in putting up more wires and the electric road people in stringing additional feeders. This village is getting strung over with so many wires in all directions that our sparrows in navigating the air will have to keep their eyes open.”

Besides being an eyesore, stringing the wires also upset property owners along the lines’ routes. Rank noted on Jan. 23, 1910 that: “The misunderstanding between one of the telephone companies and a certain farmer has two sides to it, as most cases have. It is told that the farmer will not let the line have the right-of-way along his farm. The farmer says he only insists on having a half-dozen poles raised to a sufficient height to allow them to be strung without mutilating shade trees.”

Oswego Druggist Scott Cutter's innovative telephone wire insulator was designed to be attached to trees in areas where utility poles were difficult to install. The invention helped the rapid spread of telephone lines.

Oswego Druggist Scott Cutter’s innovative telephone wire insulator was designed to be attached to trees in areas where utility poles were difficult to install. The invention helped the rapid spread of telephone lines.

That common problem prompted an Oswego businessman to invent a solution to save trees, not to mention saving money for the telephone companies—at least temporarily. Scott Cutter, a June 1893 graduate of the University of Illinois’ School of Pharmacy, purchased Oswego’s drug store in 1894. When the Chicago Telephone Company’s wires reached Oswego, Cutter rented switchboard space at the back of his store to the company. Which, by the way, created some familial discord. Cutter’s father-in-law, John Gaylord, was the manager of the rival Northern Illinois Telephone Company. “Now they do not speak when they meet at the post office,” Rank reported in August 1900. Bad feelings lasted for some time.

Cutter’s interest in telephone technology didn’t stop with managing one firm’s operations and playing host to the company’s central operators. Noted Rank on Jan. 13, 1903: “Scott Cutter has invented and had patented a tree insulator for telephone wires, which promises to be a great money getter.”

Two years later, Cutter’s invention was working out for him very well. According to Rank writing in the Nov. 15, 1905 Record: “Few people have realized the value of the little invention recently put on the market by Scott C. Cutter of Oswego, the ingenious manager of the Oswego exchange of the Chicago Telephone Company. The only reason people have not realized its value is because they never knew that under the familiar cap that Scott wears all seasons of the year there was such an inventive combination of human brains. The invention is an insulator, made of glass, in such a way that it may be conveniently wired to trees and the telephone wires strung through two holes made of that purpose. The model was duly patented some months ago and since, it has been on the market it has met with widespread popularity among telephone men and now there are over 87,000 of them in use and the orders are coming in so fast that they cannot be filled. Scott promises to astonish the pole climbers and wire pullers again in a short time with a new invention on which he is now working, entirely different from his first one–a sort of wire clamp which he claims will be a great improvement over anything of the kind now in use.”

Telephone users, on the other hand, took a while to figure out how to make use of this new technology. In December 1897, just as Oswego was connected to the national phone network, Rank commented: “The telephone is much appreciated by some of our people and quite a few distant colloquies were had by them through it on Monday. It was suggested to me that I might more readily phone my report to The Record than the doing it by writing.”

Explained Kendall County Record editor John R. Marshall a couple months later, concerning the effects telephones were having in Yorkville: “About a dozen phones have been put in business places and private houses and the number will be enlarged as their usefulness becomes apparent to our people. The company will put a long distance telephone in the court-house, which will be of great utility. Mr. Drew of the Chicago office was in town Monday and promises good service.”

In June 1900, Rank predicted the new communications technology would have an interesting impact on area farmers: “Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

That same year, telephone service reached Judd and Maria Bushnell’s farm near Sandwich, just across the Kendall County line in DeKalb County.

The Bushnells were enthusiastic diarists, with Judd, Maria, and their son, Frank, all jotted their thoughts down on a near-daily basis around the turn of the 20th Century. Reading the diaries, copies of which are in the collections of the Little White School Museum, it is striking how much face-to-face socializing went on in rural areas of that time. The stereotype of isolated farms and their lonely residents simply doesn’t stand up to an encounter with the Bushnell diaries. The diaries recount a continual series of overnight guests, of the Bushnells visiting other families and staying overnight, and numerous trips to town.

But all that personalized socializing came to a halt with the arrival of the Bushnells’ telephone. After their phone was installed, the swirl of visits sharply declined, eventually trickling off to almost zero. Instead, the Bushnells note talking on the phone with friends and relatives.

So like all new technology, the impact of telephone technology had a host of unforeseen effects on area residents. Business owners had no trouble adjusting to the phone system’s advent. It took regular folks a little longer to figure out how they’d benefit from it, some, like Scott Cutter, turning their inventive genius towards improving aspects of the business. Others, like the Bushnells, experienced lifestyle changes they likely didn’t even notice until long after they’d occurred. It would take until the invention and adoption of the Internet for such a major information technology-driven change in people’s lives to occur again.

Looking for more local history? Check out “Reflections” in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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3 Comments

Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

3 responses to “Phoning it in…part 2

  1. There have been several such technical revolutions. There was a time when literacy was possible only for the priestly caste. Alphabets made it easy for the average adult to quickly become literate once he understood the relationship between the sounds of the language he knew and the symbols that matched the sounds he made. Plato or Socrates (or someone in that era BC) pointed out that literacy meant the atrophy of people’s ability to memorize details. Doris Lessing said it best in 1998: “I have met people from Africa, illiterate, who keep everything in their heads: pages and pages…. We couldn’t keep that much in our heads.” Before the Greek Iliad was written down, it was carried in some bard’s head and recited in installments when the bard sang for his supper.
    Note that quick spreading of literacy wasn’t possible in China where the written language is not phonetic.
    I was 6 when the first TV came to our neighborhood. What a change that brought on. Before TV, outside of school hours we children played outside with each other or went from house to house to play indoors, this activity being interrupted only by meals and darkness. The first family to get a TV suddenly had all the kids in the neighborhood assembling in their living room watching “Howdy Doody” every week day afternoon. Within a very short time, many families had TVs and we children would watch our favorite shows on schedule without overwhelming Gene & Doug’s living space. Our neighborhood became very quiet indeed, after school. Outdoor play became much less common when it had to compete with TV programming.

  2. In our small farming community, TV basically took the place of radio. I remember we had a big console radio in the living room on which my mother listened to soap operas during the daytime, my dad listened to farm market reports at noon on the old WLS “Dinner Bell Time” program, and all of us listened to dramas and comedies at night. I remember the awe I felt when I saw my first TV program at my friend’s farmhouse featuring George Reeves as Superman. I’d been listening to it on radio previously, but to actually see the Man of Steel fly was a revelation. If nothing else, TV certainly did increase customer traffic at bars, especially during prizefights. We have a photo of the single tavern in Oswego taken during the early 1950s. The place is absolutely packed with patrons watching their first televised prizefight.

  3. Before the onset of TV, the radio was on in our house most of the time when my mother was there. I did like some of the shows geared toward children like “Sgt Preston of the Yukon” & music from Renfro Valley, but how I dreaded those mid-afternoon radio soap operas that my mother loved! I’m sure other kids my age listened to radio in their homes, but it did not have the same “magnetism” that TV turned out to have.

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