A Historical Comic Book of the Southern New England Telephone Company

In January 1878 George Coy founded the District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut, less than one year after telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his invention at Skiff’s Opera House in that city.  Coy’s new company was the first commercial telephone company in the world.

Seventy-five years later, in 1953, the company now known as the Southern New England Telphone Company produced a charming comic book — Pioneering the Telephone in Connecticut — to celebrate its history.  In 1998 the company records were donated to Archives & Special Collections of the UConn Libraries, and the comic book was among the materials.

Here are just a few cells of the comic book, a captivating way to learn about this important company’s history.

Last week of “Workers at Play” exhibit

Hartford Electric Light Company duck pin bowling team, 1950s

October 19 is the last day to view the Workers at Play exhibit, now showing in the Dodd Research Center Gallery anytime the building is open, Mondays through Fridays, 8:30a.m. to 4:30p.m.  We’ve had a great response to the exhibit and appreciate all of the nice comments everyone’s given.  Come see it before it’s outta here!

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections

Thermos Company employees playing bingo, ca. 1950s

Celebrate the first day of summer!

Who wouldn’t want to spend the first day of summer at the beach?  Surely these telephone operators from Norwich were enjoying just that as this photograph, from the Southern New England Telephone Company records, from 1913, shows us.  These ladies, dressed all in white down to their stockings and shoes, seem happy to be on such a pleasant outing that briefly took them from their switchboards for sun and sand.

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections

The “Voice with a Smile” returns to her telephone switchboard

Mary Cullen Yuhas Anger and her niece Kay Cullen, visiting the reading room at Archives & Special Collections on Monday, February 13, 2012

In 1952 Mary Cullen, a 25-year-old telephone operator with the Southern New England Telephone Company, received the “Voice With a Smile” award, given to operators for superior public service and demeanor.  The award came with a distinctive white headset — Mary said allowed her to stand out and made her feel very special.

Mary Cullen, SNET operator and the “Voice with a Smile,” 1952

On Monday, February 13, 2012, the “Voice With a Smile,” now Mrs. Mary Cullen Yuhas Anger, visited Archives & Special Collections with her niece Kay Cullen to view photographs, documents and employee magazines in the Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) Records in the archives.  Mrs. Anger reminisced about her happy days as an employee of SNET, from 1944 to 1956, and then off and on, on night shifts, when her children were young.

Mrs. Anger topped off her visit with the gracious gift of a dial pencil, a mechanical pencil with a metal ball at the end, which operators used to work the rotary dials (for efficiency as well as to preserve their manicures, she told us).

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections

December 2011 Item of the Month: The switchboard that launched the first public telephone company in the world

Blueprint for George Coy's switchboard, 1878

On April 27, 1877, George Willard Coy attended a demonstration at Skiff’s Opera House in New Haven, Connecticut, of an exciting new invention — the telephone — given by inventor Alexander Graham Bell.   Coy, a Civil War veteran and manager of the New Haven office of the Atlantic & Pacific Telegraph Company, was fascinated by the possibilities of this invention.  In November 1877 he was awarded a Bell telephone franchise for New Haven and Middlesex counties and spent the next two months getting partners and financial backing.  On January 28, 1878, the New Haven District Telephone Company, in a rented storefront office in the Boardman Building at the corner of Chapel and State Streets, opened for business with 21 subscribers, each of whom paid $1.50 per month for the service.  It was the first telephone exchange in the world.

Prior to this time the first telephones were used privately on lines that allowed allow two people on each end to communicate over very short distances.  George Coy invented the first switchboard, which, according to a writing done by the Southern New England Telephone Company (the successor to the New Haven District Telephone Company) “consisted of a wooden panel about three feet wide and two feet high, with a little shelf at its base on which the operator’s telephone rested when not in use.  Across the top were four circles of contacts which resembled clock dials, each contact connected to a subscriber’s wire.  In the center of each circle was a metal arm like the pointer of a clock, which could be connected with any one of the eight contact points…”  Apparently Coy had to improvise in constructing the switchboard by using wires from ladies’ bustles.

This blueprint is one of several Coy made after the initial installation of the switchboard, in an effort to patent the design.  More information about George W. Coy and his switchboard can be found in the records of the Southern New England Telephone Company, a collection that was donated to Archives & Special Collections in 2003, the 125th anniversary of the founding of the company and the creation of the switchboard.

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections

The 1906 Wire Gang Crew of the Southern New England Telephone Company

1906 work crew, Southern New England Telephone Company

The records of the Southern New England Telephone Company held in Archives & Special Collections have a historical depth that archivists and historians alike find amazing.  The collection not only can give a comprehensive overview of the company itself, but the materials can also speak to other histories — of Connecticut, of the beginnings of the telephone industry, of the introduction of women into the storied profession of telephone operator (“Number, please”), and many many others. 

Established as the District Telephone Company of New Haven, the company opened on January 28, 1878, with a mere twenty-one subscribers.  It was the world’s first commercial telephone exchange, the brainchild of Civil War veteran  George Coy along with Herrick Frost and Walter Lewis.  By the time these men distributed the world’s first telephone directory three weeks later the company had 50 subscribers.  The company took the name of the Southern New England Telephone Company in October 1882 and lasted until it was taken over by SBC Communications in 1998.  After that it merged with AT&T.

Wire Gang journal, 1906, Southern New England Telephone Company Records

There are many extraordinary documents and photographs in the collection and it was hard to choose among them to highlight for today’s blog.  On top is the photograph of a 1906 work crew in Guilford, Connecticut.  Note the goat standing between the legs of the man on the right and the dog with the man up on the pole.  Above are two pages from a 1906 Work Book of Wire Gang No. 31 out of Ridgefield, Connecticut, with details of work done on the line in August 23-29.

For more information about the SNET collection see the finding aid at http://doddcenter.uconn.edu/findaids/SNET/MSS19970122.html.  Two online exhibits that feature photographs from the collection are available from the electronic exhibits page, being from our electronic exhibits page at http://doddcenter.uconn.edu/exhibits/electronic.htm.

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections