Monday, June 16, 2008

A Costume of the Mind

"Mouth to ear is much more fantasy than eye to eye. A costume of the mind."
~ Nancy Weber, novelist

While researching antique phones of the late nineteenth century for my current novel, The Night Caller, I became fascinated with the subtle points of the medium--the social lines between the dusty facts about Blake transmitters and Leclanche wet batteries.

In New York City, c. 1882, a subscriber would lease a telephone for $150 per year. Western Electric, then the predominant provider, would make a judgment call as to the worthiness of the customer. "Telephones are only rented out to persons of good breeding and refinement," a newspaper advertisement once read. Offering the commodity at such an astronomical price not only spoke to supply and demand, but ensured a device few could understand and many believed the work of the devil would remain respectable.

The invention of the telephone also had a substantial impact on societal interaction. The tea cup bell's jingle, or absence, became a third party to the conversation, filled with uncertainties. Although the phone's initial purpose fell strictly to business and matters of vial importance, its ability to tether people to the age-old questions of the lovesick--Will it ring? Won't it? Why doesn't it?--quickly became apparent. Few can deny the inherent compulsiveness of a ringing phone.

Stripped of body language cues and other non-audio charms, courting men and women entered a mysterious realm of heightened awareness. Emotions came in degrees of vocal tones, often through a filter of telegraph clicks, scraps of other's conversations and croaking frogs. Fantasies took root while listeners diverted the energy normally given to interpreting subtle facial cues into creative images of dress or absent preoccupations of the free hand or body. The perfect blend of intimacy and invisibility.

The freedom to be in touch more often, at a greater and safer distance, also required a measure of trust. Trust that the intended listener wouldn't find other diversions, a wandering gaze completely outside the conversation or a boredom so strong she'd put the receiver down and walk away for awhile, any number of social misfires oblivious to the caller.

I embraced the challenge of a love story told, in part, through this medium. Similar to the way antiquated love letters let the imagination run rampant, subtracting all but one element to growing intimacy heightens that element exponentially. Toss in fear from the 1880s perspective and the disconnectedness from the present day and it makes for a memorable dance.

A fantastic, fun resource to learn more about the evolution of society as it relates to the telephone is Once Upon A Telephone: An Illustrated Social History by Ellen Stern and Emily Givathmey.


Sandra Ferguson said...

Very cool info. I love this type of historical 'stuff'. One of the teachers I subbed for this year had a book about inventions -- written for 3rd graders, this book covered things such as plastic wrap, the microwave, post-it notes, etc. A little bit for everyone and I loved those few paragraphs that told just enough to make me interesting cocktail company.

Thanks for adding more to the mix.

Marilyn Brant said...

My husband (a history and antiques buff) has collected old telephones for years. In fact, my office phone is the only one in our house that's touchtone. The rest date from 1905-1950...and my favorite is the candlestick in the basement. My arm gets tired having to hold up the earpiece, but I love making calls from it. It makes me feel like I'm in another time :).

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Disruptive technologies have so many unintended consequences.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I'm shocked you don't write historicals with all that inspiration lingering around.

I was going to ask how many blog readers had ever been guilty of putting the receiver down and walking away, but I suspect it would be unanimous.