NUMBER, PLEASE? Bangor Phone Girls Say This 50,000 Times a Day Now

The Golden Age of Invention continued unabated a century ago and the press was on hand to document all the exciting changes with headlines like the one above.

How many automobiles were owned by Bangoreans? How many light bulbs decorated City Hall for the Winter Carnival? How many movie and vaudeville houses could the Queen City of the East support?

Could an aeroplane beat a Stutz Bearcat around the racetrack at Maplewood Park? What was the record for the longest long distance telephone call in Eastern Maine? Keep Reading.

These and other intriguing subjects filled the newspapers. Not the least of them was the status of telephones. Was Bangor keeping up with what the Bangor Daily Commercial once called the Telephone Nation?

It’s no surprise to learn in a piece in the Commercial on Dec. 7, 1916 (see the headline at the top of this column) that Bangor was keeping up. The number of phones was growing incrementally and the number of calls astronomically. The operators, or “Hello Girls” as they were often called, were very busy.

Bangor’s first telephones were installed privately in the late 1870s by businesses seeking to communicate rapidly between offices in different parts of the city. By 1880 a local phone company was serving about 100 customers.

Telephones caught on rapidly even though they were clumsy and expensive to use. To make even a local call one had to contact the operator who plugged wires into a switchboard. Most people had party lines that might be kept busy for long periods of time by gossiping neighbors. Making a long-distance call could be time consuming and expensive involving multiple telephone exchanges and operators. Answering machines hadn’t been invented, nor had cellphones, emails or easy-to-use landlines.

After the great fire of 1911, 4,416 phones were still working in Bangor, a loss of about 100. A year later 4,690 phones were in use serving about one-sixth of the people in the city.

There were also 50 pay phones. For a nickel you could make a call within five miles of the phone company’s central office. You could even have someone summoned to a pay phone by a messenger for an extra fee.

By 1911, telephones were turning up in unexpected places. Wealthy farmers had them installed in their barns. Logging contractors installed them in camps and on trees along driving streams enabling them to report jams and accidents. Middle class matrons used them to order groceries. Saloon keepers kept them next to the bar ready for warnings of the next police raid.

A minister in Auburn conducted a funeral service over a phone line to a home that had been quarantined due to illness.

Victrola concerts were sometimes broadcast over small town phone exchanges as if they were radios.

Bangor phone operators became heroes when they refused to leave their switchboard posts while their building burned until escorted out by the police.

These were all examples of how early phones were used that I’ve found in Bangor newspapers over the years.

By 1916, there were 50,000 calls daily coming into the Bangor exchange, according to Irving Fisher, manager for the local New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. Five years before, after the fire when he assumed his job, there were only 28,000.

Meanwhile the number of phones had increased 41 percent, from 4,535 to 6,389, Fisher told the Commercial.

A notable feature was the increase in private lines, said Fisher. Wealthy folks and businesses were paying extra to have their own phone lines.

All this meant more work for the operators. Their numbers had risen from 40 to 67 with another 10 part timers in the past five years. They were trained to be polite no matter how abusive a caller might get.

Bangor people were making calls all over the country, a sure sign the city was thriving. “Telephone calls between Bangor and Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Chicago are frequent,” the Commercial reporter assured readers.

On Wednesday one of the longest calls ever from Bangor had been made to Salt Lake City, Utah, “and the connection was very satisfactory.”

No calls had been made to San Francisco from Bangor “since the new transcontinental service opened,” but it was a simple matter for someone to make one “and carry on a conversation with as much ease as though he were in Brewer.”

The cost was $22.70 for three minutes and $7.25 for each additional minute. Considering that the value of a dollar was a great deal more than what it is today, it’s easy to pinpoint the weakness in the phone system back then. Such calls were mainly for the transaction of business deals or to impart big family news to faraway relatives. One didn’t make long distance phone calls to gossip – the curse of the local party lines.

Someone had made a call to San Francisco last summer from Milbridge, “making one of the longest distance telephone calls in history, as Milbridge is one of the most easterly points in the United States.” Undoubtedly, someone from Bangor would now decide to do it, allowing the Queen City of the East to claim this particular long-distance record.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com