Were 19th century folks truly afraid of telephones?

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Like any new gadget, some people will flock to it with bold enthusiasm and others will flee with mumbly distrust. So it was with telephones. You want to dispute that? Do ya? Do you know anyone who is afraid of telephones now? Right. So it goes. Phones will always scare someone.

Among the many liberties I take in depicting Victorian Americans, I assume that people are on roughly the same spectrum of excitement to superstitiousness throughout history.

The spectrum looks like this:

Balloons!! Hoorah!! ——— Barf bags!! How does it fly??

Thurber-My Life and Hard Times 1933
A favorite: James Thurber’s grandmother was suspicious of innovations, too.

Education helps push away antique attitudes, but does it really? Personally, I don’t worry seriously about chupacabras. As an educated skeptic, I’ve seen their like pop up and fade away again like fashion. Instead, I have sleepless nights in fear of plastic oceans.

I have no more chance of cleaning up the seas than I do of being prepared for a stray goat-eater. But just to stay on the safe side, I have no tasty goats hanging around the house, and I am diligent about re-usable shopping bags. Superstition is in somebody’s eye, after all.

Where is the very best place to plant our perturbations? It doesn’t matter very much what you are worrying about if it isn’t within your control. When I researched the adoption of new technologies before the start of the 20th century, I was not at all surprised to find that the President and the first Mrs. Harrison would not touch electric light switches. Meanwhile, other people were certain that we’d have some form of video phone malarkey by 2012. (Note: Mrs. Harrison did not die by electrocution. She died in the White House of tuberculosis. She had become depressed that her husband was in love with his secretary, a suspicion she later regretted–however old Benjie did make the secretary his second Mrs. Harrison, so there’s that. This digression is brought to you by the National First Ladies Library).

me at my second job — I’m the pensive one with the bun

People didn’t universally accept the telephone as a great tool of modern life. Some 19th century proposals for phone systems were drowned out by laughter. Telephones were treated like toys for decades, and I believe a proportion of people have never stopped viewing them as newfangled nonsense–even 140 odd years later.

I would like to apologize for the contentious tone of this particular blog post. I’ve been on the phone all day and am now almost literally itching for a fight. The interrupting nature of the thing is what really gets to me. Here I am, trying to festoon a page with thoughts and pictures, and then I have a tiny man yelling in my ear. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of the phone, but we have a tricky relationship.

So, you’re not afraid of phones? Are you sure? Never?

Let one ring at 2:30 in the morning and then get back to me.

Further, further reading:

Undertakers, Harlots and Other Odd Bodies is out now. A free preview is available and all electronic formats are priced at a very reasonable US$3.99!!

A print version is for sale (US$14.99) for the benefit of people who prefer paper:  Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | IndieBound  | BetterWorldBooks | Alibris

More ebook retailer links: Apple | Kobo | Amazon.com | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords | Scribd

If you search for it on google books you end up with Oliver Twist, which is fine. Just order that!


2 Replies to “Were 19th century folks truly afraid of telephones?”

  1. Your point is well taken. But I’m not afraid of phones, just angry at people who use them. I’m afraid of the omnipresent cameras. If I lost several pounds and added a few thousand hairs to my scalp, I would be less afraid.

    Liked by 1 person

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