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June 2024
1min read

Once Upon a Telephone
An Illustrated Social History

by Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey, Harcourt Brace, 135 pages, $27.95. CODE: HTB-1

Over the last 120 years the telephone has become such an essential and all-pervasive part of American existence that a social history of the device may seem too large a topic for a single volume. Stern and Gwathmey have neatly solved the problem by taking a lighthearted approach to the subject. Their book is not an exhaustive study but a nostalgic, campy look at the phone’s significance in our culture, equal parts information and entertainment. The story is broken up into ten chapters; “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You,” devoted to the phone as an instrument of power, is the most interesting and well written. Complementing the main text are engaging phone-related excerpts from works by such writers as Robert Penn Warren, Carl Sandburg, A. J. Liebling, and Helen Gurley Brown.

But the book’s greatest charm lies in its array of vintage illustrations. The fullcolor pages feature everything from a 1916 telephone-company card that was a proper way to inform friends of your new phone number to a weird hand-colored German postcard (one of the few non-American items in the book) that features four babies hanging happily from the wall and connected by telephones. In between are advertisements, movie posters, and other images with all the classic phone metaphors.

If this book is meant to draw any conclusion at all, it’s the one attributed to the screenwriter David Freeman on page 96: “The social and business rituals that have grown up around the telephone are almost as important as the device itself.”

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