Tag Archives: communications

Once you could get it all at Sears…

Back in 1992, just as the world was on the cusp of the Internet revolution, Sears, Roebuck and Company announced the elimination of their “Big Book” catalog as a cost saving measure. It was a decision that perfectly illustrated the shortsightedness of big business.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

A stylish Yuppie lady graced the cover of the very last Big Book in 1992 in the days when Sears sold everything for everybody.

Not only did they leave the business of selling everything to everyone just as the Internet was giving that particular business model new life, but also, with that announcement, a living link to the nation’s past died.

The Sears catalog was a godsend to farm families and pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Whether they lived on the desolate plains of Nebraska and Kansas or in the prosperous farming communities of Illinois and Indiana, rural families could buy just about anything else rural life required from the Sears catalog.

Gradually, the breadth of items included in the catalog was trimmed, and special catalogs were introduced. For instance, the Farm and Ranch catalog of 1992 included a lot of stuff that used to be included in the Big Book.

Financial analysts complained the Big Book had no focus. Unlike L.L. Bean (clothes) or Cabella’s (sporting goods), the Big Book offered a bit of everything for almost everyone. And that breadth of offerings apparently made the bean counters nervous.

Of course there was no ‘focus!’ The Big Book was the place you looked when you couldn’t find something anywhere else. Need a water heater? How about home nursing equipment? Need a swing set or bikes for the kids (or yourself)? Swimming pool? Auto parts? Furnace? The Big Book had it all and then some.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

No earth tones or insouciance on the cover in 1900! The colorful Sears catalog, and consumers guide, too, with copy written by Sears himself invited everyone to buy something.

In the fall of 1900, Sears published such a wildly comprehensive selection that many of the items are prohibited by law these days. For instance, in the drug section, Sears promised to cure—not just treat—morphine and opium addiction (there were apparently quite a few folks who couldn’t “Just Say No” 116 years ago, either), asthma (called catarrh back then), alcoholism (“Our 50 Cent Liquor Habit Cure”), Dr. Echols’ Australian cure for heart trouble, and my favorite, their all-purpose “60-Cent Nerve and Brain Pills” which were guaranteed to cure you if you felt “generally miserable.”

What great stuff! Today, the Food and Drug Administration or some other such wet blanket would rule the medicines (1) had no curative values at all, and (2) they would probably cause more problems than they would help. Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be great to be able to buy something that guaranteed a cure, even if you just felt “generally miserable? ”

You could buy (young freckled ladies, please note) “Lily White Face Wash” for 40 cents. And you could not only buy watches of all prices, but you could buy an amazing 166 watchmaking tools in case you wanted to build one yourself.

There were rings, and silverware, and excellent clocks of all shapes and sizes.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

It is unclear why there was a heavy demand for bayonet revolvers, but Sears was ready to fill orders for them.

And guns. Boy, could you buy guns in 1900. There were lever-action Winchesters like the Rifleman used on TV, fine L.C. Smith double barreled shotguns, and three pages of handguns, ranging from .22 to .38 caliber. Our modern fascination with military-style weapons is nothing new—the catalog included a Harrington and Richardson “Automatic Bayonet Revolver,” which was included that year, the copywriter explained, because of the “many inquiries for a bayonet revolver” the company had received.

You could buy handcuffs or a beekeeper’s hat and net and smoker or fishing equipment, or a complete darkroom and camera outfit. And for just $54, you could purchase a complete stereopticon magic lantern show on the Spanish-American War.

And, of course, there were the clothes. Oh, the outerwear was popular (in fact, it’s amazing how much a man’s suit from 1900 looks like one from the 1960s Beatle era), but it’s no secret that the boys of that day and age used the Sears catalog to find out just what women looked like under all those clothes they wore. There on page 572 are a bevy of fetching young women dressed in (gasp!) tight- fitting Union suits! And on page 682 is the ever-popular display of summer corsets.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

Not exactly sure how this appliance would have worked, but it looks painful just sitting there on the page. Sears was ready to fill the need—whatever the heck it might be.

There were chests of tools, tombstones, iceboxes, cast iron stoves, horsedrawn carriages and harnesses—you name it.

In fact, Sears became the world’s largest retailer not by having a ‘focus’ but by offering things people needed and wanted—strangely enough, Sears’ focus was their customers. What a concept! And the ad copy was cleverly written to make sure everyone ended up wanting something.

By the last winter it was published, the Big Book had grown to 1,640 pages from 1900’s 1,120 pages and a Yuppy lady on the front of 1992’s fall-winter Big Book replaced the stylized barefoot lady with flowing robes on the 1900 book. But the 1992 Big Book still contained an awesome collection of clothing, appliances, tools, and just plain neat stuff.

The “New Home Cabinet Organ” of 1900 had given way to 1992’s electronic keyboards and “The Optigraph or Moving Picture Machine” had made way for the video camera. But the bicycles were still there (starting on page 1444), as were the women’s corsets (called “Support Garments” in 1992 and starting on page 205), although young fellows can see a lot more skin nowadays on daytime soap operas than in Big Book ad copy.

The company, I believe, began its slow decline when the accountants took control of the business from salesmen. After all, Richard Warren Sears started out in 1886 by selling watches no one else wanted, while Alvah Curtis Roebuck began by repairing watches for Sears. By 1891, the pair were publishing a catalog (with all the ad copy written by Sears) and by 1894, Sears and Roebuck had become the nation’s shopkeeper. Their success was driven both by the sales genius of Sears, helped along by the U.S. Government’s institution of Rural Free Delivery. With the introduction of RFD, mail orders were delivered right to the mailbox out in front of every farmhouse in America instead of to the post office where customers had to go pick them up. It’s an eerily similar situation to the success on-line retailers like Amazon have realized making use of the Internet, another government developed and encouraged communications innovation.

R.W. Sears made millions not by watching the bottom line, but by giving people what they wanted or what they thought they wanted. With the guys from the business end now in charge, Sears has been in financial trouble for years. The company’s destructive corporate culture has already nearly eliminated Kmart as a viable company and seems well on its way to destroying R.W. Sears’ brainchild.



Filed under Business, History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Grouchy old retired editor yells at punctuation clouds…

I consider myself a reasonable person. At least in most things. I don’t consider myself a grammar Nazi, either. But I have to admit there are some things, grammar-wise, that people do that drive me absolutely crazy.

Chief among these things is the misuse of the friendly, useful apostrophe and his little buddy, the comma.

Apostrophes are handy things. They give readers all sorts of useful clues, mostly concerning who owns what. There are, for instance, lots of moms, but my mom’s recipe for pie crust is superior. See what happened there? More than one mom turned into a single, possessive mom, and all it took was an apostrophe.

Commas, those little crescents that look like a ground-based apostrophes, are our friends, too. They tell us what sorts of things go together, what things need to be considered separately, and sometimes where we ought to take a breath when we’re reading out loud.

Misuse of these entirely practical little squiggles is a plague on our society. Not to mention the world and quite possibly the universe. I’ve been fighting against it, in a quiet sort of way, ever since I got into the editing game. My general rule in life is “Moderation in all things,” and when it comes to punctuation it’s even more true. Fewer apostrophes and commas would, I think, be a kindness to everyone. It would certainly make for kinder, gentler editors.

Lo, those many years ago when I was toiling in the editorial fields, I gradually became aware that overuse of commas was driving me crazy. It was a serious problem when we were still typing stories on our trusty upright Royals. I became adept at the squiggle that tells the typesetter to treat all those invasive commas as invisible. But then we started using those little TRS-80 laptops, and removing excess commas—which was most of them—became a laborious pain since it had to be done one at a time.

And then glorious technological progress! Macintosh computers, friendly little boxes that looked like Wall-E, sort of sidled into the newspaper office and became our boon companions, running early versions of Microsoft Word and spitting out copy on nearly silent LaserWriters. And with Word came the wonderful ability to seek and destroy! Errant commas could no longer hide from my blue pen or amongst the legitimate characters on a small LCD screen; squiggles were no longer necessary to excise the little buggers from copy.

And this was a Godsend, especially when it came to editing sports copy. I really liked all the sports writers. I went along with jargon and buzzwords and clichés. But all those extra, extraneous commas? No! Which is where the search and destroy function came in so handy. First thing I’d do is search for commas and replace them with nothing at all (whoever thought up that idea is a genius on a par with Einstein), because there were generally only a dozen or so needed in any given piece and I was sometimes getting a dozen a sentence. Not that I begrudge the serial comma, of course. That’s the one place I make an exception. Strangely enough though, those comma nuts seldom use the serial comma, which would mean I’d actually have to insert commas.

Unlike commas, apostrophes seemed to create confusion and hesitation. When it came to commas, writers throw hands-full, barrels full, boxcar loads of the things into perfectly innocent paragraphs and sentences. But with apostrophes, usage seems to be one of the universe’s particularly tangled mysteries to many writers. They appear to get nervous if they haven’t used one in a while, so they seem determined to stick them in randomly, just to keep their hands in and the copy interesting.

“The Smith’s liked that,” they’d write. “American’s are just fine,” they scribble. And what is the poor copy editor supposed to make of such writing? Smiths and Americans are just fine, all of them, without throwing apostrophes at them on the off chance they might make sense. Really they are.

I tell you, commas and apostrophes were banes of my existence, but they became less baneful after I hustled out of the office door following a particularly nice going away party—even if I was pressed back into emergency service for awhile afterwards and even if I didn’t get a second nice going away party. I was not bitter, however, because I knew I’d never have to edit another sports story written by someone with a comma fixation ever again.

However…however I still read. A lot. And those misplaced commas and apostrophes still grate on me when I see them. I’m not quite as militant as Lynne Truss, author of Eats Shoots & Leaves, who has been known to harangue theatre owners over errant apostrophes on marquees—and even steal them if she can reach high enough to snatch them away from places they should not be. Ever.

This book is an obvious, transparent attempt to rattle the cages of those who prefer their apostrophes to be used correctly.

The title of this book is an obvious, transparent attempt to rattle the cages of those who prefer their apostrophes to be used correctly.

I don’t do that. But I grouse. I complain. I bore my wife. I can’t help it. When I see a book jacket with a really nice type face spelling out the title, Unknown Wars of Asia, Africa, and The America’s That Changed History, I can’t help it. I ask myself, “America’s what?” No apostrophe is needed there; IT IS NOT A POSSESSIVE! It is meant to be a plural. Why is that apostrophe there? Did the book’s art director decide to stick it to grammarians because he had a bad experience trying to diagram sentences in seventh grade? Or perhaps he’s new to this country. Having come from Luxembourg only the week before, it’s possible he’s unfamiliar with proper apostrophe use. Or maybe she’s from south of the Ohio River. I understand they do terrible things to sentence structure down there because they’re still angry that Sherman invented urban renewal in Atlanta, only he started in the white parts of town.

So anyway, I think I’m feeling better now and besides, it’s time for supper. Writing is easier than a lot of us make it, and harder, too. Most of the time, less really is more. And a good supper cures many ills.


Filed under Frustration, Newspapers, Uncategorized

The tale of the high private in the rear rank…

I’ve been working on a news feature for the Record Newspapers commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln assassination, and its effect on Kendall County. In fact, I’ll use that as an excuse for not blogging for a while (even though it was more due to a combination of laziness, lack of inspiration, and fixation on finishing the Oswegoland Heritage Association newsletter).

When I started looking back at 1865 in Kendall County, I was reminded of stories I’d run across before, but piecemeal, not as a coherent whole. For instance, there was the county’s series of long-standing connections with Abraham Lincoln, albeit somewhat peripheral ones, from Henry Sherrill’s carriage to Lorenzo Rank’s adventure during the first Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Ottawa. You’ll have to wait until the Record folks publish the article for those stories.

There were hundreds of stories that revolved around the end of the Civil War around these parts, and one of the most interesting is that of Alfred Lincoln Browne. When the war ended, ALB, as he signed his many letters and other articles that appeared in the Kendall County Record back in the day, was serving in the 146th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, one of the regiments recruited near the end of the war to serve inside Illinois, freeing veteran combat troops for other duties.

ALB was a native of Kendall County who joined up at age 19, following his three brothers into the service. His family was fairly remarkable. One of those brothers serving during the Civil War was a doctor, and his sister was the redoubtable Anna Brown Lester.

He volunteered with a group of his young Big Grove Township neighbors and was mustered in at Springfield. ALB’s Company D was assigned to guard and other duties at Quincy, then a hotbed of Copperhead sentiment in Illinois.

From the young man’s standpoint, his military service was a lark, a lot like an extended trip to Boy Scout camp with his neighborhood buddies. Shortly after he arrived at Company D’s camp at Quincy, he sat down and penned a letter back to Henry C. Cutter, a fairly prominent resident of Oswego Township.

We have no idea what the connection between ALB and Cutter was, but from the tone of the letter, they were good friends. Cutter and his brother, James, had a rousing adventure of their own when they left their native Massachusetts in 1849 to head for the California gold fields. One of these days, I’ll get around telling their remarkable story.

Downtown Quincy, Ill., close to the location of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, as it looked the year of the debate. Quincy became a hotbed of Copperhead sentiment during the Civil War.

Downtown Quincy, Ill., close to the location of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate, as it looked the year of the debate. Quincy became a hotbed of Copperhead sentiment during the Civil War.

But today, we’ll stick with ALB, and his letter back to his friend Cutter in Kendall County. It’s a great letter, written in two parts, the original of which is in the collections of the Little White School Museum here in Oswego. In it, he reveals his generally high spirits, and a sense of self-deprecating humor that makes a historian wish (for the umpteenth time) for access to a time warp to make a conversation with ALB possible). And so, for your edification and enjoyment, here it is:

Camp Dean, Quincy, Ills
October 11 th AD. 1864

Friend Cutter

You have doubtless heard before this, that I have volunteered for one year, in the 146th Regiment. Ills Infty. which was authorized by the War Department to do duty only within the state

On the 4th of September I bade farewell to home and started for Springfield. About half past seven oclock PM we arrived in Joliet and having taken supper at the Auburn House got aboard the cars, and next morning at 7 o’clock found ourselves in the renouned capitol of the State. I remained in the city all that day (Monday) and next day about noon Sept. 6th I was sworn into the service and sent immediately to Camp Butler about 7 miles northeast of the city.

After being there a few days we had an election of officers. Our capt is an Englishman and he is troubled with a disease which it is impossible to cure— I mean the Big Head. He does not like the idea of associating with us boys, and therefore we have all turned against him.

The first page of Alfred Lincoln Browne's October 1864 letter to Henry C. Cutter. Browne, then just 19, went on to live a full and interesting life. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first page of Alfred Lincoln Browne’s October 1864 letter to Henry C. Cutter. Browne, then just 19, went on to live a full and interesting life. (Little White School Museum collection)

Well, to go on with my story, on Sunday the 18th Sept we received our uniform, and $33.33 1/3 (being a part of out $100 Government bounty.) On the 19th we received our knapsacks haversacks Arms and soforth; and on Wednesday the 21st, Sept about 3 oclock P.M. we received marching orders. Got on board the cars and next morning about 3 oclock we landed in Quincy, and after remaining on the Public Square several hours, we were marched to our present camp about a mile south of the city. We remained here till late in the evening without anything to eat. But now we get plenty rations and there is a good spring of water in camp We have fine times here. Today for dinner we had a good kettle of boiled cabbage, potatoes, beef, beans, bread &c Now dont you think we live pretty well on this kind of fodder? We dont receive from government all the things which I mention such as cabbage potatoes &c. We get them on our own hook. For instance, we very often have a surplus of soap, pork &c on a hand and we go out to some of the neighbors and trade them off for something that we are more in need of. The company consists of 101 men.

Two of our boys were let sick in the hospital at Camp Butler. About six or seven & more have gone to the Quincy Hospital. But I keep well right along. The tents in which we are quartered are about 10 feet square, about large enough for eight men. A pole is suspended overhead on which we hang our equipment. A Box is in one corner in which we keep our provissions, and we use our knapsacks for pillows. This may seem a hard way to live, but when I consider all the hardships which brother John has to endure down in the front near Atlanta, I can not complain.. I think myself at home so long as we remain in Illinois.

We expect to remain here till after the election: we may be then be sent away, we dont know where, probably to Rock Island or Chicago

Well I have filled one sheet of paper but I must write a a few lines more. I presume you have heard about the rebel raids in Missouri. They have caused considerable excitement in this camp. About ten days ago, a train on the Hanibal and St Joseph R.R, was attacked & captured by eight or ten Guerrilla bushwackers. They also robbed the train of $10,000 in greenbacks and then went about their business. We thought at one time that we would be taken across the River to persue them. The city of Quincy is filled with rebel spies, but I tell you they are watched pretty close. A man was arrested a short time ago, attempting to smuggle a large box filled with guns across the River. Two or three other spies have been lodged in jail. Our Regiment is divided up and stationed in different sections of the state. Some in Chicago, some in Jacksonville, others in Alton & two Companies here.

Our camp,, has been named in honor of our little Colonel H. Dean. He is about as high as my shoulder, but every inch a man.

Last night about midnight we were aroused from sleep, and ordered into line. The officers heard the report of three guns a little way outside of the camp and it was supposed that the rebels had crossed over from Mo to attack us,

We were all up and ready for the fight in less than three minutes and after having marched a short distance scouts were thrown out but nothing could be found so we marched back to our tents and slept soundly during the remainder of the night. You see Mr. Cutter that I have been in the army just long enough to become initiated into all the joys and glories of a military life. I enjoy the camp very well—have not yet become homesick.

We load our guns every evening, in fear that we need might have to use them during the night. We always get up in the morning about 6 oclock and after sweeping around our tent and hanging out our blankets we cook our breakfast. Then comes drill, and so forth. We have plenty time to spend in reading & writing I received a letter from Anna today. She tells me all about her visit at Oswego. A few days ago I sent her my likeness in the blue uniform. Today I received a letter from father and Mother. They are all right and intend before long to send me a box of things. I have to go on guard duty this evening at 8 oclock.. The duty of the guard is to keep all soldiers within the limits of the camp and if they see any suspisious person hanging around to shoot him down. When in camp Butler I tried to find Frank, but could get no not find him out. Where is he at present I would be glad to hear from you soon. Let one know all the news from Oswego. Remember me to Mr Fox’s folks. Good night to all

Alf. Browne
High private in the rear rank


Wednesday Oct. 12th 1864

Every Sunday we have preaching here in camp. But many of boys get passes and go to church in the city. Last Sunday our chaplin preached us a good sermon from Romans 14th chapter, 12th verse “So every one of us shall give account of himself to God”

All kinds of persons may be found here in camp. Soldiering always exposes the true character of an individual This is a good place to study Human Nature—to apply the science of Phrenology.

Our wages are now $16 pr month We are to be paid off every two months and expect soon to receive some money Many of the boys glory in spending their money but I send mine home and expect that by the time my term expires I shall have $500.

A short time ago I was in Quincy and had the pleasure of hearing speeches from Gen Oglesby, candidate for Gov., Senator Doolittle of Wis. and other distinguished gentlemen Last Friday a Copperhead meeting was held in the city. The candidate for Gov., Jas. C. Robinson made a speech.

The great Northwestern Sanitary fair commenced yesterday in, the city. It will last all the week. I will try to get a pass today if possible and go to the fair— admittance 25 cts.

It is now Wednesday morning, 12th, Last night I filled two sheets of paper with my interesting harangue and this morning thought I would scribble off a few lines more I never become tired of the pen. But as I have soon to go out on drill. I close. Write soon. Write everything to.

Alfred S. Browne
Co D. 146th Ill Vols
Camp Dean

Alfred Lincoln Brown continued his adventures after his stint as a soldier, earning a degree from Oberlin College, teaching in freedmen’s schools in the South, teaching in Kendall County schools, farming, and teaching himself to read and write Norwegian so he could better communicate with his Scandinavian neighbors. He never married. He died died July 27, 1920, and was buried in the Millington-Newark Cemetery after a full, well-lived life.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

Phoning it in, part 1…

We’ve got a fishing cabin we’ve owned with a high school friend up in Wisconsin for nearly 35 years now. When we started out, and for more than a decade and a half later, we had no phone in the place. And we still have no television.

But some time ago we decided, since we weren’t getting any younger and since the cabin is in a cellular dead spot, we’d get a phone in the place. And then with the advent of the Internet, we decided broadband and WiFi were necessities, too. So nowadays, we can make landline calls or use Skype on our smart phones to communicate with the wider world and jump on the Internet for the latest weather and fishing reports.

The lack of cellular service really doesn’t have much of an impact on us, but it seems to be a definite hardship for youngsters of a certain age whose parents and grandparents rent cottages at the resort just down the road. In order to make a cell phone call, it’s necessary to hike south on Lakeshore Drive, up the hill, and to the corner where the road makes a right-angle turn to the east. At the top of the hill, cell service is suddenly available. And of a summer evening, it’s not uncommon to see a gaggle of a half dozen teens absently strolling in circles, their iPhones and Androids clutched to their ears, engaging in serious conversations with who knows who.

Time was, of course, there wasn’t any landline service anywhere. Then telephone technology started getting off the ground and became something more than a curiosity of hobbyists.

An Oswego native, Charles Wesley Rolfe started out teaching school locally, went on to become superintendent of Kankakee schools, and finally taught biology at the University of Illinois. He was also instrumental in the discovery and naming of Oswego's very own fossil, Tentaculies oswegoensis.

An Oswego native, Charles Wesley Rolfe started out teaching school locally, was a member of the first graduating class at the University of Illinois, went on to become superintendent of Kankakee schools, and finally taught biology, geology, and other subjects at his alma mater, the U of I.

Here in the Oswego area, the earliest mention of a telephone I’ve been able to find was in the “Oswego” column of the Kendall County Record on Aug. 8, 1878. Correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported that:

“Prof. Rolfe, who at present is sojourning at Mr. Farley’s, has established a telephone; those who have seen it say that it works to perfection.”

Charles Wesley Rolfe, an Oswego native then the superintendent of the Kankakee School District, and later a professor of biology at the University of Illinois, had married Farley’s daughter. Rank didn’t say who was connected via Rolfe’s telephone; it was probably an in-house experiment, something Farley, an inventor himself, would have delighted in.

During the next few years, some Yorkville first-adopters were busy with local telephone installations. Then in 1881, Oswego druggist, banker, and entrepreneur Levi Hall had his residence connected to his drug store by telephone. As Rank reported in the Aug. 11, 1881 Kendall County Record:

“L.N. Hall is always foremost of this community keeping up with the times; he has now his store and residence–which are six blocks apart–connected with telephone, not yet however in talking order.”

Installations during the next several years were business-only, like the ones in Yorkville. For instance, the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company ice houses three-quarters of a mile north of the Oswego depot were connected with the depot by telephone in 1882 to coordinate the delivery and pick-up of box cars to the company’s siding.

An effort to establish a phone line with subscribers from Aurora to Oswego in 1885 was unsuccessful, even as short-line phone service continued to expand in area towns. As the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way, is one of my favorite newspaper names, right up there with the Stewart, Iowa, Locomotive): described one such situation in April 1886:

“Yorkville has an undertaker’s establishment connected by telephone with a hardware store and a correspondent remarks that farmers can now order their agricultural implements, hardware, and furniture with one call. If the first named was connected with a doctor’s office, they could call their physician and order their burial outfit with the same call.”

It wasn’t until October 1897 that the Record reported could report serious efforts were underway to add Kendall County residents to the nation’s phone system. Reported Record Editor John R. Marshall:

“We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels [high-wheeled bicycles] and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality. It is hoped they will fix us up with their talking machines.”

Bronze medallions like this denoted Chicago Telephone Company equipment. The CTC was part of the fast-growing Bell Telephone system.

Bronze medallions like this denoted Chicago Telephone Company equipment. The CTC was part of the fast-growing Bell Telephone system.

And, in fact, it wasn’t long before not just one but two telephone companies were vying for Kendall County residents’ business.

By November, Marshall could report:

“The poles for the new telephone line from Yorkville to Aurora connecting with Chicago have been set through these villages and well along the road towards Aurora. The tall white poles may have a business-like look, but they are certainly ornamental to the streets.”

And on Dec. 15, Rank finally reported from Oswego:

“The hello racket on the telephone was ushered in last Saturday. The poles have been set all around town.”

It was remarkable enough that folks in town could ask Central to connect them to their aunts and uncles in the next town. It was downright awe inspiring that a growing number of country folks could do the same.

The Record’s Specie Grove correspondent was looking forward to this new ability to connect his farm with far-flung places, remarking on Dec. 13, 1899:

“With a telephone line through the Grove we will all be putting in city airs, but will probably not have a ‘central’ or a ‘hello’ girl for a while yet.”

In June 1900, the Northern Illinois Telephone Company extended its lines into Kendall County in direct competition with the Chicago Telephone Company, which was part of the growing Bell Telephone system. Rank, reporting from Oswego, noted:

“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.”

On Oct. 24, 1900, the Record’s Specie Grove correspondent ruefully noted from his farmhouse:

“Blessings, like misfortunes, never seem to come singly. Two telephone lines are now coming to serve us at the same time. The Chicago line runs along the river road from J.C. Raleigh’s to the corner south of Yorkville where it connects with the line running south from town with a stub to the Shepard farm, while the Northern Illinois line runs from Yorkville on the Plainfield road to the Plattville road, running south past the Kendall schoolhouse. Side lines will be put in to accommodate farmers not on this road. Both companies have had gangs of men at work the past week and there is much to do yet. The latter line intends to continue on to Plattville.”

But by January 1901, he was marveling at what technology had wrought:

“We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

It was a major technological change that, in turn, had a major sociological impact on small town and rural life the likes of which had been seldom seen.

In the next post, I’ll take a look at what some of those sociological effects were.

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

My new phone is smarter than I am…

So for Christmas, my wife and I decided to buy each other what the cool kids call “smart phones.” So we wandered down to the nearest Apple Store, and bought a couple new iPhone 4S’s. Their boxes, carefully wrapped are residing under the Christmas tree in the front room while we try to divine the secrets of their operation.

As a person who remembers living out on the farm with phones that did have dials, but required calling the operator for “long distance” calls, which were all the way to Aurora and Naperville, this whole thing is pretty interesting.

Phone service got to our small farm town in 1897. On Dec. 1 of that year, the Kendall County Record reported that “The telephone poles are now all up and the trees all trimmed.”

Two weeks later, the wires were up and calls started circulating around the community.

It was a new technological experience, especially for the country folks whose homes were near enough to the phone lines to be hooked up.

In January of 1901, a farmer marveled: “We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

The Chicago Telephone Company's new switchboard in the Burkhart Building on South Main Street, March 1911.

The Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in the Burkhart Building on South Main Street, March 1911.

In fact, we had an embarrassment of riches when it came to phone companies, with both the Chicago Telephone Company and the Northern Illinois Company stringing lies and doing business in Kendall County. The two battled it out for nearly a decade. In 1901, the Chicago Telephone Company bought the local assets of the Northern Illinois company. By that time, there were 286 local phone users. In 1920, the Chicago Telephone Company was renamed Illinois Bell Telephone.

Out in the country in the 1950s, while we were on dial phones, we were still on a party line. I can’t, for the life of me, remember what our ring was—each subscriber had a distinctive ring so they’d know when an incoming call was for them. But I DO remember our phone number: 2225. That was it; no exchange prefix, no area code, just the four subscriber digits.

The whole party line thing was sort of interesting, too. In an era when we have lots of questions about someone listening in on our phone calls, it might be of some illumination to recall the party line era when anyone on the line could pick up their receiver and listen in on the calls.

One neighborhood farmer was notorious for listening in on calls between other farmers and the commission man who handled livestock sales with the Chicago Stock Yards so he’d know how much they were making on the sale. Everyone blamed it on his Scots heritage (including his own relatives). In reality, I suspect he was just a nosey old man.

When we moved into town, we were still on a party line, but there were only two other neighbors on it. And that situation changed within a few years so everyone in town had private lines. Wow!

Starting in 1955, Illinois Bell started holding annual Telephone Community Nights in small towns all over northern Illinois—including Oswego. At these events, the latest in communications technology was showcased. It was at one of these events in the early 1960s where I saw the first picture phone and the first wireless phone. Very impressive!

A few years later, Illinois Bell installed one of their very first electronic switching centers in our town, and things really started to modernize.

In 1971, thanks to the advanced telephone switching system, Oswego became the first community in Illinois to offer four specialized electronic services: speed calling, conference calling, call forwarding, and call waiting.

Nowadays, we’ve gone more and more wireless, and are enjoying phones with more computing power than the space craft that went to the moon had.

While we still can’t “talk to planets Saturn and Neptune,” like the Kendall County Record’s correspondent predicted back in 1901, we can do all sorts of other stuff on our new smart phones, including play games and e-mail people on the other side of the earth. We can even still make phone calls.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events