You’ve got to give Apple a little credit for its reaction to consumers fussing about the company’s slowing down older iPhones. “We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down,” the company wrote to customers. “We apologize.” A century ago telephone companies were downright belligerent to customers who complained.
It was the beginning age of the new communication technology, and one of the biggest consumer problems in the nation’s capital and big cities where service was first provided was learning to use the basic telephone. I’m serious. So much was it an issue that telephone companies ran conspicuous ads in newspapers every week or so that often took on what they considered dumbbells who were irate.
Mind you, the instrument used in 1918 was a no-brainer, the candlestick phone, the one seen in old movies depicting telephone service from the 1890s to the 1930s. Its mouth was near the top of the candlestick, the receiver hook on one side with an audio apparatus that was placed on the ear. You lifted the gizmo, which alerted an operator who would listen to your requested number. Still, there was phone phobia, so much so that it took 35 years to get about a quarter of the U. S. population to get service.
Telephone firms had to explain everything. They even urged getting a cord reel “to prevent it from getting entangled with desk material … a reel actuated by a spring, having just enough tension to keep the cord wound up but not sufficient to move the telephone,” read one ad in June 1916. Another two years later had the warning: “Don’t Let Your Baby Suck the Telephone Cord.” It could short-circuit the line.
And home phone service wasn’t cheap. Rates in Washington, D.C. were reduced on April 1, 1916, for a basic cost of two bucks a month for a two-party line, with only a few calls included in the package. Even if you didn’t have a home phone, telephone companies often went out of their way to promote using a pay mechanism because it wasn’t a great loss to the consumer if the call didn’t go through, as illustrated in an ad titled “The Man with a Nickel”:
“Consider what a blessing to humanity the telephone is. Wherever you may be, in the town or in the city, there you will find the familiar blue bell, the sign of service. The telephone knows no creed or class, it speaks any language and serves alike the man with a million or the man with a nickel.”
The ads by telephone firms were downright defensive, focusing on a couple of interrelated issues: first, don’t blame the company when you goofed. For example, one ad in the Washington, D.C. Herald newspaper titled “Central, You Cut Me Off” followed with the admonition that “sometimes this is said as though the operator takes pleasure in interrupting conversations.” If you get cut off, the text continued, “don’t get impatient,” but let the operator know the number you want to call again. “A cut-off means extra work for the operator and irritation to the parties talking. We do what we can to prevent it.”
“Don’t Jiggle the Hook” was the title of another testy ad in the Washington Herald. Again, another admonition: “If you jiggle the hook rapidly, it does not transmit the signal, and the operator doesn’t know you want her.” Moreover, “jiggling the hook does no good and is likely to injure the instrument.”
The New York Telephone Company had a higher-calling ad in the New York Tribune newspaper. Taking for granted that usage was less a problem for savvy — and perhaps surly — big-city consumers, it concentrated on the development of “pleasing telephone manners.” For business firms, courtesy was critical:
“Progressive store managers are studying its relation to their sales. Employees are being trained to treat telephone callers with the same degree of courtesy and consideration that obtains in a face-to-face conversation.
“And the result for those who practice telephone courtesy faithfully is a constantly growing volume of telephone trade and good-will.
“No doubt telephone courtesy is growing in favor in your organization. The encouragement you give to your employees in developing pleasing telephone manners will bear fruit. …”
Although it would appear to be the most self-evident trait of telephone usage, answering calls “promptly” had to be stressed by phone firms “What is often blamed as ‘slow service,’” chided one company, “is often caused by the called party not answering his bell promptly.”
And remember, it went on, if you answer the call and it’s for someone else in the family, don’t place the receiver on the hook because it “automatically signals the operator that the conversation is finished.”
“On a Busy Line” ad prompted a real dressing-down of phone users: “When you hear others talking on the line after the operator has given you your connection, it means that the operator has accidentally connected you on a busy line. This does not occur very often, but when it does it is not the part of courtesy to order the other party to ‘get off the line.’” The remedy? Hang up, wait a few moments, and place the call again.
Maybe trying to ease a bit its scolding tone, one company had a sweetener of sorts at the bottom of every single ad:
“When You Telephone — Smile.”
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.