If You’d Like to Make a Call…: The Michigan Bell Telephone Sign from the Brody Dump
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.