As I have discussed in previous posts, my project for this year in CAP is to make 3D models of different artifacts found around campus that we have here in our collections. You may have also seen many of these on our Instagram and Twitter […]
Author: Jack Biggs
The Saints’ Rest excavations conducted by the Campus Archaeology Program have been well-documented and researched not only because this was the inaugural project for CAP, but also that it is one of the earliest buildings on campus, giving us a rare glimpse into how students […]
The Saints’ Rest Dormitory has a foundational history with Michigan State University, acting as the first dormitory for the fledgling college, and with the Campus Archaeology Program itself, being the first large-scale excavation and archaeological fieldschool on campus. Built in 1856, Saints’ Rest was the […]
One of the best parts about doing research on artifacts we find during CAP excavations is coming across incredible stories or histories that stem from what some people would consider mundane and ordinary objects. Such is the case with a seemingly ordinary piece of a […]
As technology constantly changes, so too does the constructed landscape to accommodate those changes. One major notable change that has occurred in recent memory is the mass-production and availability of cell phones in the 1990s and 2000s. Cell phones allow people to talk to anyone else no matter where they are. Apart from major social and cultural changes that this brought about, the wide-spread use of cell phones resulted in public telephones and telephone booths to drastically dwindle with estimates of around 2.5 million pay phones in the U.S. in the mid-late 90s down to about 243,000 in 2012 . Pay phones are no longer a commonly seen component of our cities; phone booths sit stripped and empty in older buildings. So much has this changed that some people from younger generations have probably never even seen a pay phone!
Excavations at the Brody/Emmons dump site revealed an old public telephone sign. Measuring about 30cm X 28cm, the sign is made of a square-cut piece of metal with porcelain enamel on both sides which each reads ‘MICHIGAN BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY’ and “AMERICAN TELEPHONE AND TELEGRAPH” in a ring around the image of a bell which itself has the words ‘BELL SYSTEM’ on it. The sign also has a flange on one side indicating that it was originally intended to be fixed onto a surface and project outwards. An exact date for the sign is not known, but signs of this design were commonly seen on public pay phones during the 1920s-1940s. Michigan Bell Telephone Company was once a subsidiary of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company – commonly known as AT&T . While both companies still technically are around, they are no longer connected to one another in the same way when Michigan Bell was founded (a little more on that later). In doing the research for this artifact, I decided to focus on the unexpectedly tumultuous history of the Bell Telephone Company and its role in both the social lives of the American people as well as its place in politics.
As is common knowledge, Alexander Graham Bell patented the first practical telephone in 1876 (although in 2002 Congress officially recognized Antonio Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone) [2, 3]. It took a while for telephones to become a common item as they originally were large and clunky, expensive to subscribe to, difficult to operate, and had poor sound quality. The first telephone in Michigan went to one of Bell’s good friends in Grand Rapids in 1877. After public demonstrations were held with the prototype phones, the first commercial phone line was set up in Detroit between a drugstore and its chemical laboratories a couple miles away . Interestingly, a large portion of the early users/subscribers were physicians who used them to be informed of incoming patients so as to more quickly and adequately prepare for their arrival and treatment . Still, the use of telephones became more popular with Bell’s public demonstrations.
The Bell Telephone Company (and its subsidiary-turned parent corporation, AT&T) held an almost entire monopoly on the telephone business until Bell’s patent expired in 1893, after which thousands of small companies popped up to get in on the business . This resulted in prices and rates plummeting which made the technology more publicly available and affordable. Expansion into rural areas and smaller towns created a boom in telephone subscriptions as well as the advent of public phones. Unlike household phones, early public phones were initially free to use. These public phones were predominantly located in/around pharmacies since many physicians already had them in place and were used as a way to get people to come into their stores. However, it appears that free phone calls caused lingering crowds and constantly tied-up phone lines which angered pharmacists and store owners enough that nickel slots were installed by the turn of the century [2, 4].
By the 1920s, AT&T started acquired many of the smaller phone companies and services which the dwindling number of non-AT&T companies required. Although AT&T did not own all of the smaller companies, by 1930, 80% of all phones in the United States were Bell phones and of those that were not, 98% were connected to Bell lines. However, the Depression hit the phone industry hard with over 2 million households canceling subscriptions between 1930 and 1933 [4, 6]. AT&T even revamped their marketing strategy during this time and instead of advertising to entice new subscribers, they focused on convincing current subscribers not to cancel by arguing that a phone subscription is a necessity that only costs a few cents a day. By this point, the telephone was a common everyday item for many Americans, but one that (unlike today it seems) people were able to drop. Public pay phones thus allowed the public to still use the service for a small price per call without requiring monthly subscriptions that could be used for more necessary items.
After 1933, phone subscriptions began to climb once again with the industry meeting pre-Depression Era subscriptions by 1939. After rate freezes during World War II, AT&T again began consolidating it grip on the industry. By the 1970s, the company once again had a monopoly on telephone service, resulting in a federal antitrust lawsuit beginning in 1974 . The outcome of this court case required a divestiture of the mega parent company into seven regional large companies. Michigan Bell was reorganized, along with other Bell operating companies in the Midwest as a subsidiary of Americtech Corp . This company was then merged with SBC Teleholdings and the Ameritech branch was renamed to AT&T Teleholdings. Although this is a relatively recent history of Bell companies which took place decades after the Michigan Bell pay phone sign was placed in the East Lansing Dump, it is interesting to see the path taken by the iconic company. Who knew that the ability to make a simple phone call, whether on your cell phone or on a pay phone, had such a volatile history or was so deeply enmeshed in political quagmire? Rich histories such as these can only come from conducting this type of historical research on objects we think we know enough about. The phone we know of today is not just a phone, but is the totality of over 125 years of history wrapped in ingenuity, inventions, patent lawsuits, intense government intervention and oversight, and corporate dealings, which has allowed us to call our loved ones from (almost) anywhere on the planet.
 Andreatta, D. 2013. As pay phones vanish, so does lifeline for many. USA Today. Published online 17 December, 2013.
 Brooks, J. 1976. Telephone: The First Hundred Years. Harper & Row, New York.
 Campanella, A. J. 2007. Antonio meucci, the speaking telegraph, and the first telephone. Acoustics Today, 3(2):37-45.
 Fischer, C.S., 1992. America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley University of California Press, Berkeley.
 History of the Telephone in Michigan. 1969. Detroit: Michigan Bell Telephone Co.
 Angelo State University Library, 2018. Telephone Goes To War 1930-1950. Blog. http://www.angelo.edu/services/library/wtcoll/verizon/pages/Timeline/tel_war/tel_war_tx.php
 Coll, S. 1986. The deal of the century: The breakup of AT&T (1st ed.). New York, Atheneum.
As archaeologists, some of our most common findings are in fact trash, the things people not longer want or need which are then thrown away. As a result, dump sites, or middens, are some of the best contexts from which to reconstruct the lives of […]
Like Mari Isa, for this blog post, I will be talking about the outreach event that CAP ran for Holmes Middle School in Livonia, MI on Friday, January 19th. However, I will be discussing it from a different point of view. In Mari’s blog, she […]
As I mentioned in my first blog post for this year, my CAP project is to go through all of the dissertations, and bachelor’s and master’s theses written by Michigan State students about Michigan State University during its entire history as an institution of higher education. Doing this has granted me access to previous students’ hard work about something they believed in and wished to make known to someone other than themselves and their advisor. The goal of this project (of which I will share more of my results later on) is to find and identify any information that can help supplement the complex and rich histories that we dig up in our excavations.
However, sometimes you come across sources that paint such a rich history, but unfortunately have left no (as yet identified) archaeological trace. I came across one such instance a few weeks ago while reading a master’s thesis in the MSU Special Collections room of the library. Written by William Gibson Butt in 1947, the master’s thesis A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937 reveals the humble beginnings of the Drama Club on campus and traces its first few decades of history as it became a staple in campus life.
Butt (1947) writes that the Drama Club started in 1910 at the behest of student who wished to put on performances on campus as there was no Department of Theatre at the college at that time. The student put on the play The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in the Spring of 1910 to great success. Since there was no stage on campus at the time, the students were required to build their own stage at the old Armory (located where the Music Building is now) but could only construct the stage the day of the play and were required to tear it down that evening after the performance. Sylvester King, a faculty member at MAC, agreed to help the students put on the play. Having a background in theater, King was able to acquire costumes for the production from New York City. After the first production, the club was officially recognized by MAC and put on at least two productions every year.
Once they started doing two productions per year, the Drama Club began putting on plays outdoors in a wooded area just east of where Howard Terrace used to stand. This building was demolished in the early 1920s to make room for the Home Economics Building which still stands today, now called the Human Ecology Building. This would place the location of this outdoor performance area somewhere around where the parking ramp between Human Ecology and Olin Health Center. The Drama Club’s first performance outdoors was As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Again, this performance was so successful that the club started putting all of their Spring plays in this same area, and always performed a work by Shakespeare. Due to these annual plays, this wooded area became known as the Forest of Arden, a setting in As You Like It.
Despite all of this well-documented history showcasing MSU students, it is also quite humbling for an archaeologist such as myself. As an archaeologist, I use artifacts that I unearth to try and understand the lives of those who created or used those artifacts. The object drives the narrative, informs the narrative, and is itself then re-informed by the narrative. In many archaeological settings, the story cannot get told or even discovered if there is no artifact with which to start the conversation. In the case of the storied past and early beginnings of the MSC Drama Club, no artifacts to date have been found or associated with this sect of campus life. The area of campus where The Forest of Arden once stood is now occupied by a parking ramp. Additionally, these outdoor performances were intended to be temporary – the players would have picked up any props or potential artifacts relating to theatrical production. It is in instances like this that we must look at our own limitations and recognize that no matter how much we dig up and even rely on archival resources, we can never encapsulate the entire story.
There are some stories that are archaeologically invisible. Fortunately in the case of the Drama Club, the MSU Department of Theatre, the MSU Library, and the MSU Archives have records and documentation of this history. These stories get to be rediscovered and retold in the future. Other stories sadly get erased through time and leave no material record behind. Thus, we are fortunate to belong to an institution that cares about its own history and allows us to access those memories in whatever way we can so that we can pass along great stories such as these. By understanding that we cannot tell the whole story, we become better story-tellers because the belief that we know everything only closes us up to other voices. We must use as many resources and listen to as many voices as we can so that we can better understand ourselves and our school’s proud history.
Butt W.G. 1947 A History of Dramatic Activities at Michigan State College to 1937. Master’s thesis, Michigan State College, East Lansing, Michigan.
Continuing with my theme of alcohol bottles found on campus, I’ll be discussing one particular bottle that was discovered during excavations of the Brody/Emmons area. The bottle is a clear, rectangular-based bottle, no doubt a liquor bottle given this shape. If there was any doubt […]