This entry will deal with the telephone and the radio as they are remembered from the 1920s to the early ’40s. These items were very important to life in those long ago years.
Let us look at the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell is credited with this late in the 1800s. Telephones — of a sort — were part of life for many in the early part of the 1900s, particularly in business and in city life. They had become a part of life for many in rural areas by the time the 1920s came around.
In many parts of rural America farmers in a community would have their own telephone line, six to eight homes usually being linked together on a common line, known as a “party line.” This line was then connected to other, similar lines and some one-party lines by a switchboard, perhaps located in the nearby village. Usually a woman, known as “Central,” operated the switchboard.
The usual telephone of the time was a device mounted on the wall, oftentimes now seen in antiques shops or at restaurants such as our Cracker Barrel. There was a mouthpiece protruding from the box and an earpiece from its side. A metal crank was on the opposite side of the mouthpiece. Two bells were at the top of the front of the phone.
In order to make a call, one would turn the crank, it would ring the bells, and “Central” would answer. One would usually give the four-digit number of the person being called and “Central” would ring that number for you. Upon being answered, a conversation could then be conducted by two parties.
The party lines had several participants, each with a different sort of ring. One might have “one short ring,” another might have a “long and a short” ring, another “three short” rings, and so on. The problem was that every ring would be heard in each of the houses on the line. Everyone usually knew whose ring that was, so all one had to do was lift the receiver and listen to the conversation in progress. This was called “eavesdropping” — a wonderful way to get news (and gossip) of the community. Quite entertaining! One had to be careful to not say something you didn’t want the community to know.
As for long distance, the switchboard was connected to the phones of a larger city, so it was possible to call someone in a distant location. However, there was usually so much noise and interference on the line that it was hard to understand the other person. Also, there was a considerable cost (at the time) for “long distance” calls.
Now, a personal note regarding the “party line” with which I was ever so familiar. My grandfather had the dubious honor of being “president” of the line — whatever that meant. I assume it came about because he had been instrumental in getting the line built and in maintaining it. No pay, of course.
Sometimes one could call another person on the line when “Central” could not be reached. How well I remember one of the ladies who would call our house with something like this: “ Jim, I can’t get Central, what’s the matter with our line?” Off I would be sent on my bicycle to check out the line and perhaps get a limb off of it that the wind had knocked from the tree. Or, maybe the lines had become crossed somewhere along the way. Or, correct some other problems.
In 1939, Southern Bell took over and built new lines throughout the community. That left the old lines there and no longer in use. They installed “dial phones” in all of the homes, so the old wall phones no longer were needed.
Mt mother and stepfather lived about a half mile or so from my grandparents. So, with the help of whoever could be rallied to do so, I undertook to build a line between the two houses. Wires were strung up on trees and posts, phones were mounted, and a private phone line came into place. It worked well and served as a means of communication between the two houses for several years thereafter.
So much for the telephones of those distant days of yesteryear. Now, let us look at the radio way back then.
Radio was new in the early 1920s. It had only been invented a few years earlier. Radio stations began to spring up in most cities and people began to purchase radios for their homes. My memory of a radio was about 1926 or so. I remember going to my great-aunt and uncles’ home and was greeted by her with the words, “Be quiet, we think we’ve got the Grand Old Opry on our radio.” We sat there and listened intently to some country music faraway (about 15 miles) Nashville.
In a few years most homes had a radio. Earlier ones were sort of boxy-looking sizeable wooden cabinets with some dials near the top. Below the dials was a speaker. Eventually radios became smaller and could be put on a table or desk. Names like “Philco” and others became common. The car radio did not become common until a few years later.
“The Grand Old Opry” was the usual Saturday night fare. Such names as “Uncle Dave Macon” and others where commonplace. The Nashville station WSM served the entire mid-state area. In the evenings we would laugh with “Lum and Abner,” “Amos and Andy” and other such comedies. The soap operas kept many of the ladies entertained during the afternoons. “Stella Dallas” and other such programs kept the women (and some of the men) in suspense from one episode to another.
Television was far in the future back in those days, though it would not be too many years away. The computer, the cellphone, and so much more were mere “science fiction” back then. Who would have thought that what we have today as commonplace would come about?