It’s hard to imagine a time when telephones were not a part of everyday living. Today, phones are found in our homes, offices, and even in our pockets—modern life would shut down without them. In the late nineteenth century, however, some consumers questioned the value of owning a telephone, seeing them as either a luxury item for the wealthy or as a disruptive and unpredictable nuisance. Winterthur’s collections contain a number of items relating to the evolution of those concerns, including a rare children’s book in the Saul Zalesch Collection of American Ephemera.
Hello! Santa Claus! Or, How a Telephone Upset Christmas was written by Mary Bissell Waterman in 1886, only ten years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone. Waterman, a Utica-based children’s author and poet, explored some of the popular anxieties surrounding the new invention. Her tale opens on a noisy Christmas Eve in the Claus household, which had been flooded with nonstop calls ever since Santa decided to install a phone. To make matters worse, all of the calls were from spoiled rich children whose families could afford the new device. Following a chat with a girl on Fifth Avenue asking for a gigantic diamond ring, Santa finally lost his patience—he screamed at the child, quit his job, and ran off to his room determined to sleep through Christmas.
The story continues with a poor girl calling on a borrowed phone asking for a blanket. Mrs. Claus then decided to steal Santa’s sleigh and deliver his gifts to poor neighborhoods, hospitals, and orphanages. When Mrs. Claus returned home and told Santa what she’d done, he was aghast at the thought of dealing with angry phone calls from rich children about their missing toys. On Christmas morning, however, the phone calls were from wealthy children happy at the joy their gifts brought to others.
The ‘Santa Claus on the phone’ trope remained popular for several more decades. As telephones became more affordable and widespread, however, themes of sentimentality and consumerism overshadowed most traces of social criticism related to phones. Two cards in Winterthur’s Maxine Waldron Collection express this development.
A 1907 Christmas card illustrated by Ellen H. Clapsaddle shows Santa and a child on the phone, separated by a partition bearing a line from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. The two are speaking on a wall telephone, possibly the Western Electric Model 1317. An undated card from the turn of the century shows Santa reaching for a similar style phone.
The Model 1317 remained in production all the way up until 1937 when technological changes finally made its design obsolete. The well-known Western Electric model 302, which exemplified the trend toward more compact designs, was introduced the same year that the Model 1317 was phased out.
In the Winter 2017 issue of Winterthur Portfolio, authors Russell Flinchum and Ralph Meyer look back at the Model 302 in their exploration of twentieth-century telephone design and the firm of Henry Dreyfuss. “Henry Dreyfuss and Bell Telephones” sheds new light on the histories of iconic models like the 302, the Princess, and the Trimline. Flinchum, a professor of design history at North Carolina State University and former archivist at the Dreyfuss firm, and Meyer, a physicist and expert on Bell System telephones, challenge accepted knowledge about Henry Dreyfuss and telephone design, including their own earlier work. Through July 1 this article can be accessed free of charge. Click here for access to the article.