Wooden wall telephone made by the Stromberg-Carlson Company, 1910

This wooden wall telephone was manufactured in 1910 by Stromberg-Carlson Company of Chicago, Illinois. Alfred Stromberg and Androv Carlson, both employees of the Chicago Bell Telephone Company, formed their own telephone equipment manufacturing company in 1894.  In that same year, some of the patents on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone expired creating opportunities for independent companies to capture a piece of the market Bell had dominated.

Almost overnight, hundreds of smaller companies built phones and installed systems all over the country. And most of those systems were in smaller towns and rural communities-areas in which the Bell Company had no interest because of their low profitability.  These small towns and companies needed reliable equipment and by 1899, Stromberg-Carlson supplied many of them, emerging as a leader among the independent telephone suppliers.

The Stromberg-Carlson phone became known as the “farmer’s friend” because of its quality and reliability, and its use mainly in rural areas.  It helped the American farmer by connecting small towns and breaking down the isolation of rural life.

The telephone in the museum’s collection is a type of wall phone called a twin box or double box. Two boxes are affixed to a wood backboard, the entire phone measures 32 inches long and 10 inches wide.  The top box has bells on the outside, and inside are magnetos, an electrical generator that uses to supply electricity to operate the phone. These early telephones had no rotary dial or push buttons. To make a call, it was necessary to turn the s-shaped crank that is attached on the right hand side of the top box to power the magnetos which in turn produce electricity making a connection to the operator.  The caller would then speak into the mouthpiece which works like a microphone, and ask the operator to connect the call.  In between the top and bottom boxes sits the small black transmitter, on which is mounted the mouthpiece.  The receiver (the part held up to the ear) is hung on a hook on the side of the transmitter; it can be lifted off the hook and is connected to the transmitter with a cloth cord.

When the receiver is lifted off the hook, the caller can hear the operator, it works like a speaker. The popular saying, “off the hook” can be traced back to this use of early phones.

The batteries to power the phone were stored on a heavy cast iron shelf in the bottom box. The shelf needed to be strong and sturdy as the batteries in 1910 were heavy. It is hard to find an old phone today that still has the battery shelf.

A sloping writing shelf where messages were written is situated on top of the bottom box.  In the early days of telephones, it was necessary to stand at the phone, holding the earpiece to hear the message and write using the little shelf.  There was no leisurely sitting down for a phone call or the convenience of an answering machine.

This telephone shows the normal wear and tear of possibly fifty years or more of use and it possible to imagine late night calls for emergency help, the caller frantically grasping that mouthpiece.  Or perhaps the phone once was a conduit for calls to loved ones far away, the earpiece held tightly, the cloth cord connecting rural families to relatives who left home.  If this telephone could speak, imagine the stories it could tell, the secrets uttered into it, the confidences shared.

Indeed a farmer’s friend, this old Stromberg-Carlson wall telephone connected farms to the outside world.  It serves as an illustration of the early days of telecommunication when making and getting a phone call was an important and special thing.

Western Electric was a United States electrical engineering company, the manufacturing arm of AT&T from 1881 to 1995.
The telephone was donated to the museum by Clarence E. “Mutt” Doran in 1977. Doran, who passed away in 2002, worked 34 years for General Telephone Company, primarily as an installer-repairman. Doran was interested in the history of the telephone and had a large collection of antique phones.

Mrs. Doran remembers Mr. Doran interest in old phones began when he as working for the phone company and was responsible for exchanging old phones for new ones. Mr. Doran accumulated phones from residents and farms, often repairing them to make them operable.  Word spread of his hobby and old phones were brought to him for restoration.