Abstract: The Telephone on Main Street: Utility Regulation in the United States and Canada before 1900

Robert MacDougall


How would the history of telecommunications change if we centered our attention on something as mundane as the telephone pole? In this paper I compare the first decades of telephony in the Midwestern United States and Central Canada, arguing for a "bottom-up" history of the information age rooted in local conditions and physical space. We may imagine the telephone as an "annihilator of space," but nineteenth-century telephony was profoundly shaped by its municipal milieu. Historians have chronicled debates over telecommunication at the federal and state or provincial levels. But there is a tumultuous history of local regulation and negotiation that preceded state commissions and national networks. The cities in which municipal government became actively engaged in telephony during the 1880s enjoyed earlier, wider access to telephone service, more interconnection between town and farm, and a less genteel culture of telephone use. Cities without active municipal involvement escaped the chaos of competition but saw more expensive service and less use of the telephone as a social medium. Local politics—and the politics of localism—had a lasting impact on the development of the industry and indeed on the culture and meaning of telephone use.

BEH On-Line Paper