This is the second post in a series on the history of communication technologies in Asheville & WNC, from telegraphs to the Internet. Revisit the first post about telegraphs here, and stay tuned for future entries.
Buckle in, y’all, this is a long’un! Skip to sections:
- The First Asheville Telephone Company
- Saved by the Bell
- The Second Asheville Telephone Company
- The Bell Tolls for the Independents
- The Asheville Telephone and Telegraph Company
- The Hello Girls
- The 10,000th Telephone
Smartphones are so ubiquitous today that it’s easy to forget what marvels of modern communication their predecessors were. Telegraphs were revolutionary, but had a few major limitations: messages had to be transmitted and received by operators who understood Morse code, and only one message could be sent at a time.[i]
Among those who were experimenting with improvements were the Boston-based inventor Alexander Graham Bell who had been interested in sound and speech since his teens, and a young electrician serving as his assistant, Thomas Watson.
Around the same time that Asheville was planning and putting up its first telegraph poles, Bell and Watson were working on patents and testing models for carrying the sounds of human speech across telegraph wires. By 1877, residents of Boston and other major cities could lease “two Telephones for social purposes connecting a dwelling-house with any other building” for $20 a year (or $40 for business purposes).[ii]
The First Asheville Telephone Company
In Asheville and Western NC, as in other areas where the American Bell Telephone Company (the predecessor to AT&T, named for Alexander Graham Bell) had not yet brought service, it was up to independent efforts. In 1885, five men incorporated the Asheville Telephone Company with the (rather verbose) mission to
establish, erect, and maintain in the counties of Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson and Madison, in the state of North Carolina, or in one or more of said counties, a system of telephones with all necessary exchanges, offices, poles, wires, instruments, machinery, implements and all other things now used or which may or can hereafter be used in connexion with the instruments known as telephones, so as to make and keep up a thorough system of telephone service in one or more of said counties.[iii]
Lawyer Calvin Monroe McLoud, who had been instrumental in bringing the telegraph to Asheville years before, was part of the company, as were legislator Richmond Pearson, businessman Norman W. Girdwood, railroad manager F.A. Stikeleather, and mayor E.J. Aston. The Asheville Citizen urged people to consider adding their businesses and residences to the network so that telephone service—“a long felt want, an absolute necessity” could begin at last.[iv]
By the end of the year, the infrastructure was starting to take shape. “Wire-puller” Milton Ledford strung up the telephone wires[v] and the paper predicted that “hello”—a word that came into popular use because of the telephone[vi]—would “echo from one end of the town to the other.”[vii]
Naturally, people had to be taught how to use the new technology. The Asheville Citizen helpfully published reminders, for instance, to use numbers rather than names when asking the telephone operator to connect you with the party you were trying to call, and to indicate when you are starting and finishing your conversation.[viii]
By January 1887 there were “seventy-odd” subscribers to the local telephone exchange, connected through “about seventy miles of wire.”[ix] Citizen editors reflected, “It was only in 1876 at the Philadelphia exposition—a period of eleven years intervening—that the telephone was exhibited as a new device and people were amusing themselves with it as if it were a mere scientific tow. Since then its wires have made cobwebs overhead in our cities and have stretched between cities, towns, and villages throughout the continent.”[x]
Saved by the Bell
Alas, this first local service was short-lived. Elsewhere in the nation, the “Bell system” followed on the heels of local exchanges—often causing problems as Bell, pushing for market dominance, refused to sell or rent equipment to independents and, even more importantly, refused to have their systems interconnect.[xi]
At least some Asheville residents (including the editors of The Citizen) were wary of inviting Bell/AT&T’s “gigantic monopolistic enterprise” to the city to “gobble up” the local service.[xii] Others saw Bell as an inevitability.[xiii] Ultimately, city authorities welcomed Bell, and the local company closed up shop.[xiv]
Following a gap in service of several months,[xv] a second iteration of telephone service—this time provided by Southern Bell, the regional Bell operating company—relaunched in July 1889.
The Second Asheville Telephone Company
Skip to September 1898. Tucked amid news reports on Hawaii’s annexation, the Dreyfus affair, the yellow fever epidemic, and advertisements for corsets, bicycles, and beer, The Asheville Gazette reported: “New Phone Coming to Town.”[xvi]
After 9 years of Bell service, the hazards of its monopoly had begun to surface: a “careful investigation of three months” showed that Southern Bell was charging Asheville residents rates “40 per cent higher than in other places of the same size, and that the service received was not the best.”
Unable to get Southern Bell to lower its rates, the Asheville Board of Trade offered $5,000 to a Wisconsin business, Proctor & Sons, to establish a competing service—with the caveat that they would not raise rates for 25 years, nor sell out to Bell.
The new Asheville Telephone Company, run by H.P. Proctor, W.S. Proctor, and Mrs. Charity Rust Craig, charged annual rates of $24 for businesses and $16 for residences, while Bell had been charging $40 and $30, respectively.[xvii]
Enthusiasm was strong. Many subscribers switched over to the independent company, including the Southern Railroad offices and the Asheville Citizen. Some got to keep their old phone numbers, but reminded callers that they’d need to connect through the new independent exchange rather than the Bell system since the services didn’t connect. The Citizen urged people and businesses alike to shift to the independent service as a united front, and not to let Bell bully them nor entice them with new lower rates which they had been unwilling to offer before.[xviii]
Despite delays in getting the service up and running, by August 1899 the independent Asheville Telephone Company was serving 600 customers and employing 10 women who served as switchboard operators in the “hello office” at 11 Patton Avenue.
The independent service connected Asheville customers with 70 others in Hendersonville, and more in Brevard, Sapphire, Skyland, and Arden[xix] and later Waynesville,[xx] Spartanburg,[xxi] Fairview,[xxii] Leicester,[xxiii] Swannanoa, Black Mountain, Montreat, and more[xxiv]—40+ connections outside of Asheville in all by September 1901, encompassing a radius of 40 miles.[xxv]
By 1903, at 1,028 telephones now installed, “in proportion to the number of residents in its territory” the Asheville Telephone Company “probably” held the world record for number of subscribers.[xxvi]
Phone service was so cheap that by the standards of the day it was ubiquitous. Annual residential subscriptions cost about the equivalent of $550 today, and nothing much kept non-customers from illegally borrowing use of others’ telephones. Conversations held over the telephone ranged from business matters to affairs of the heart.
Meanwhile, Bell was working on broadly integrated and standardized service. On September 24, 1901, the same article praising the independent telephone company for their 40+ connections announced the completion of the long distance telephone line by Southern Bell, connecting Asheville with “almost every city in the United States having a population of over 6000 inhabitants” via connections through Spartanburg or Charlotte. This was 40+ states and territories—over 10,000 stations.[xxvii]
The Bell Tolls for the Independents
But secretly, the Asheville Telephone Company was struggling.
The local company, alas, was losing thousands of dollars annually. The more customers they got, the more they had to invest in additional equipment and employees, but they had committed to rates so low that they could not sustain them. They’d purchased a new $4000 multiple switchboard in 1900[xxviii] which within two years was already too small for Asheville.[xxix] Material costs and wages had gone up, in part because of striking workers.[xxx]
By summer 1903, a mere five years after they had promised neither to raise rates nor to sell out to Bell, a buyout was proposed—and quickly, emotions ran high.
That month, Southern Bell purchased a majority stake in the Asheville Telephone Company, “merging” under a new name, the Asheville Telephone & Telegraph Company. The goal was that this move would stabilize rates at a reasonable level, gain the benefits of Bell’s larger network and better equipment, and decrease the number of telephone poles (as they’d need only one set of connections where previous infrastructure had been doubled up).[xxxiii]
The public was not happy. Why sell to Bell? Why not see if another independent company could pick up the service at reasonable rates? The Asheville Telephone Company had not yet folded—why not simply allow them to increase their prices enough to turn a profit?
The deal went through, despite heated debate and “a splendid fight” by the people of the city. On October 23, 1903, “the largest crowd ever in attendance on a meeting of the city council was present” at a meeting that dragged on until 2:30 AM.
When the smoke cleared (metaphorically) Asheville was looking at a 33-year franchise with a rate increase of 60% for the next five years, after which “the company may charge what it pleases.”[xxxiv]
The 1904 telephone directory (copy held in Buncombe County Special Collections, Ref N.C. 917.5688 ASH 1904) lists W.S. Proctor still in place as manager, but now working under W.T. Gentry, President of Southern Bell. And just look at those long-distance connections, courtesy of the Bell system![xxxv]
The Asheville Telephone and Telegraph Company
Despite the criticism of the transaction, it certainly resulted in improvements. Lines continued to be extended further out. Equipment was replaced. And by 1906 the Asheville Telephone and Telegraph Company had moved from their previous offices on Patton Avenue into a new telephone exchange building, hailed as “the most modern ever constructed.”[xxxvi]
Located on Walnut Street between North Lexington Avenue and Rankin Avenue (entrance today now on 25 Rankin) the two-story brick structure featured a break room for operators with “comfortable chairs and lounges, the latest periodicals and a stove upon which the young ladies may heat their lunches or cook anything they desire,” as well as a new switchboard “of the newest and most modern design” designed to accommodate heavy telephone traffic, especially during the summer tourist season.[xxxvii]
New phones were also installed in customers’ homes: “an immense improvement for convenience over the old ones, as no bell ringing is required to reach central. All necessary is to take down the receiver and a red light on the switchboard tells the ’hello girl’ that her attention is wanted.”[xxxviii]
The Hello Girls
Although telegraph operators had been largely men, telephone work—where operators actually had to speak with customers—quickly became gendered as a women’s realm. Socialized to prioritize politeness, attention to detail, and good speech, women—in particular, native-born, middle-class, unmarried white women—were seen as inherently suited to the work of serving as a “human machine.” (Men and boys, on the other hand, were prone to pranks and cursing.)[xxxix]
The work of telephone operators was in the public awareness, as telephone users had to interact with them in order to place calls. People even visited the telephone exchange to see the “hello girls” in action.
It wasn’t an easy job. At least one reason for ensuring that the operators had a comfortable break room was the strain of service work. “The position of the operator is a trying one,” notes the article. “[A]n impatient and irritable subscriber is likely to agitate a nervous girl who is restrained by the operating rules from making other than a set reply to any statement, no matter how disagreeable.”[xl]
In addition to rudeness, telephone operators had to contend with knowing (and keeping) the city’s secrets.
One Indianapolis operator early on, in 1887, noted that despite not being personally acquainted with the telephone users she served, “I know just what kind of men they are from hearing them talk over the telephone. I sometimes am horror-stricken at the language used by men who, in society and among their friends, are regarded as nice fellows. I have in mind many prominent church members who sometimes make the exchange girls who happen to be listening blush with their talk over the wire.”[xli]
At a meeting of the Asheville Rotary Club in 1919 (at which point there were 5,608 telephones in use in Asheville), the Rotarians took a tour of the Asheville Telephone and Telegraph Company building. After lunch, the “hello girls” presented them with a bouquet of flowers and a card containing a witty reminder:[xlii]
By 1922 the telephone was no longer considered a luxury but had become “a positive necessity.” Ninety-six operators connected easily 100,000 to 150,000 calls per day, and the paper reported that over 6,000 telephones had been installed in Asheville—“the largest number of ‘phones per capita of population of any city in the south,” reported the paper.[xliii] Asheville was chatty.
The 10,000th Telephone
Southern Bell purchased out the remaining stock of the Asheville Telephone and Telegraph Company on August 1, 1923.
On December 15, 1925, the 10,000th telephone was installed in the home of R. L. Sessoms in Lakeview Park. The city and the Southern Bell company marked the milestone with a luncheon at the George Vanderbilt Hotel featuring speeches from Mayor John H. Cathey; Holmes Bryson, president of the Chamber of Commerce; and M.B. Speir, Southern Bell’s manager for the Carolinas.[xliv]
Mr. Speir’s 1925 speech on the growth of the telephone emphasized a surprising point: its local quality.
While Asheville’s telephones had once been mostly used for business in the summer months—tourist season—“in the past few years his company has done most of its business in the fall, winter, and spring months. This is evidence,” reported The Asheville Times, “of a broadening economic basis of community life.”[xlv]
(Stay tuned for the next posts In this series for later telephone history and other communication technologies in Asheville & WNC! And for more information on telephone history in Western NC, see also Kathy N. Ross, “Line by line: Building a phone system for Haywood County” in The Mountaineer, June 25, 2022.)
Post by Carissa Pfeiffer, Librarian, Buncombe County Special Collections
[i] Library of Congress, “Telephone and Multiple Telegraph,” Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/alexander-graham-bell-papers/articles-and-essays/telephone-and-multiple-telegraph/
[ii] “The First Telephone Advertisement, Used the Year Following the Issuance of the Original Patent, Offered to Furnish Telephones “for the Transmission of Articulate Speech Through Instruments Not More Than Twenty Miles Apart,” reproduced in Watson, Thomas A., The Birth and Babyhood of the Telephone, an address delivered before the Third Annual Convention of the Telephone Pioneers of America at Chicago, October 17, 1913. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/54506/54506-h/54506-h.htm
[iii] Notice of Incorporation in The Semi-Weekly Asheville Citizen, October 1, 1885, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-semi-weekly-asheville-citizen-incorp/131033223/
[iv] “The Asheville Telephone Exchange,” The Asheville Citizen, September 10, 1885, page 1 https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-beginning-of-tel/121613170/
[v] “Mr. Milton Ledford is the most successful ‘wire-puller’ in Asheville…” in The Asheville Citizen, December 31, 1885, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-semi-weekly-asheville-citizen-milton/131040339/
[vi] Krulwich, Robert. “A (Shockingly) Short History Of ‘Hello,’” NPR, February 17, 2011. https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/02/17/133785829/a-shockingly-short-history-of-hello
[vii] “The telephone wires are being strung…” in The Semi-Weekly Asheville Citizen, December 9, 1885, page 1 https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-semi-weekly-asheville-citizen-post-o/128961902/
[viii] “The Telephone Exchange,” The Asheville Citizen, January 2, 1886, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-how-to-use-a-tel/121613385/
[ix] “Telephonic” in The Asheville Citizen, February 12, 1887, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-ashevilles-tele/130188918/
[x] ”It is only about ten years since…” in The Asheville CItizen, March 23, 1887, page 2. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-telephone-takeov/130189088/
[xi] Mueller, Milton. Universal Service: Competition, Interconnection and Monopoly in the Making of the American Telephone System. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, 2013). https://surface.syr.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=books
[xii] ”The Telephone Question” in The Asheville Citizen, June 21, 1888, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-the-question-of/131083188/
[xiii] ”Telephone” in The Daily Sun, June 20, 1888, page 4. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-daily-sun-pro-bell-telephone-service/131084428/
[xiv] ”Aldermen’s Meeting” in The Daily Sun, August 4, 1888, page 4. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-daily-sun-asheville-telephone-compan/131034331/
[xv] ”The opposition has disappeared here, but the Bell has not supplied its place, and the question is, Why not? For the telephone is needed here as much as ever.” The Asheville Citizen, December 18, 1888. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-local-telephone/131084676/
[xvi] ”New Phone Coming to Town” in The Asheville Gazette, September 10, 1898. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-times-new-phone-coming-to/131088088/
[xvii] ”New Telephone System” in The Asheville Daily Citizen, November 1, 1898. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-proctor-sons-n/131035801/
[xviii] ”Hello! A Few Words of Warning on the Telephone Question” in The Asheville Citizen , March 6, 1899. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-fighting-back-be/131095581/
[xix] ”Extensive ’Phone Service” in The Asheville Daily Citizen, August 17, 1899. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-proctors-teleph/131092840/
[xx] ”Connect with Waynesville,” Asheville Daily Gazette, November 17, 1899, page 1, https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-times-waynesville-telehon/131098161/
[xxi] ”Hello, Spartanburg!” in The Asheville Daily Citizen, April 9, 1900, page 1, https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-asheville-teleph/131098693/
[xxii] ”Hello Fairview!“ in The Asheville Daily Citizen, July 19, 1900, page 8. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-asheville-teleph/131098887/
[xxiii] ”Hello, Leicester!” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, October 12, 1900, page 5. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-leicester-t/131099091/
[xxiv] ”Long Distance Phone System: Hello Lines All over Western North Carolina in Next 60 Days,” in The Asheville Citizen, April 27, 1901. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times/131099874/
[xxv] ”United States a Suburb of Asheville” in The Asheville Citizen, September 24, 1901, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-bell-connects-as/131100148/
[xxvi] ”A Telephone to Every Thirteen Persons” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, January 13, 1903, page 7. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-asheville-t/131405258/
[xxvii] “United States a Suburb of Asheville” in The Asheville Citizen, September 24, 1901. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-bell-connects-as/131100148/
[xxviii] ”Great Improvement in Home Equipment” in The Asheville Daily Citizen, March 2, 1900, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-new-switchboard/131445368/
[xxix] “A Telephone to Every Thirteen Persons” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, January 13, 1903, page 7. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-asheville-t/131405258/
[xxx] ”Local Union No. 238,” in The Electrical Worker: Official Journal, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, June 1903, page 58. https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/view/21822768/1903-06-june-electrical-workerpdf-international-brotherhood-of-
[xxxi] ”News Summary, Local” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, July 3, 1903, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-telephone-m/131391047/
[xxxii] ”Telephone Meeting Was Warm and Interesting” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, July 3, 1903, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-telephone-m/131390588/
[xxxiii] “Board of Trade Consents at a Meeting Held Yesterday to Merger of Telephone Co’s” in The Asheville Weekly Citizen, June 26, 1903, page 7. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-weekly-citizen-advantages/131401574/
[xxxiv] ”Despite Protests of Hundreds of Citizens Bell Telephone Company Captures Original Franchise.” The Asheville Citizen, October 24, 1903, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-october-23-meeti/131450773/
[xxxvi] ”Asheville’s New Telephone Service” in The Asheville Citizen, December 23, 1906, pages 9-10. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-new-building-on/131454015/
[xxxviii] ”Electricians Here to Fix Switchboard” in The Asheville Citizen, September 2, 1906. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-new-switchboard/131455912/
[xxxix] Lipartito, Kenneth. ”When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890-1920,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Oct 1994), 1075-1111 .https://doi.org/10.2307/2168770.
[xl] ”Asheville’s New Telephone Service” in The Asheville Citizen, December 23, 1906, page 9. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-new-building-on/131454015/
[xli] ”The Telephone as an Aid to Satan” in The Asheville Citizen, June 18, 1887, page 1. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-the-telephone-as/130189573/
[xlii] ”Asheville Rotarians are the Guest of the ’Hello’ Girls” in The Asheville Citizen, August 8, 1919, page 7. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-rotary-club-visi/131454537/
[xliii] ”’Number Please?’ Ninety-Six Young Ladies Ask Asheville People 150,000 Times Each Day,” in The Asheville Citizen, April 16, 1922, page 9. https://www.newspapers.com/article/asheville-citizen-times-asheville-teleph/131451174/
[xliv] ”Will Install 10,000th Set Next Tuesday” in The Asheville Times, December 13, 1925, page 40. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-times-10000th-telephone-i/131457471/
[xlv] ”Asheville Passes a Milestone” in The Asheville Times, December 16, 1925, page 4. https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-asheville-times-10000th-telephone-l/131459086/