Abstract: The People's Telephone: The Political Culture of Independent Telephony, 1894-1913

Robert MacDougall


In this paper, I explore the political culture of the independent telephone movement in America from 1894 to 1913. Thousands of small telephone companies appeared in those years to challenge the monopoly of American Bell. They embraced the language, if not the substance, of American populism, speaking boldly of "liberating the people" from Bell's "tyranny" and declaring their fight "the War for American Industrial Independence." However, what was truly radical about the independent telephone companies was not their overblown rhetoric, but their approach to the task of building America's communications infrastructure. The independents offered a different style of telephone network, oriented to a different class of consumers. Theirs was a telephone system with less reach but more democratic access, with less efficiency but more local control. Their story demonstrates the conflicts and the inescapable connections among corporate structures, physical infrastructures, and political ideas.

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