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…
Take a moment to think about what kinds of materials you’d expect to find in a garbage dump from 2018. Did plastic immediately spring to mind? About 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, only about 10% of which is recycled (1).…
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.
Mason jars are having a moment. If you’ve attended a wedding (particularly the barn variety) or eaten at a brunch establishment in the last decade, chances are you’ve consumed a beverage out of a Mason jar. What the youngest among us may not realize is…
While a great many treasures have come from the Brody/Emmons complex (aka the East Lansing dump), the one that spoke to my heart will be of little surprise to our regular readers. It is a small stoneware crock with blue lettering that says “Kaukauna Klub,…
Today we think of soda, or as we say in these parts pop, as coming in a few standard sizes: 12 oz cans, 20 ounce bottles and 2-liter’s to name a few. But as I’m sure you’re aware, sizes have changed substantially over the last century or so. That’s why this large, quart size bottle from the Brody/Emmons complex (the East Lansing dump) stands out. The first two-liter bottle was produced by Pepsi-Cola in 1970 (http://www.pepsico.com/About/Our-History). In fact the two-liter bottle is the only standard soda bottle in American that comes in a metric serving. With the exception of a few liquor and cleaning bottles this is the largest food related bottle recovered.
The embossed marks “Nehi Bottling Company”, “32 OZ Capacity” provided the first clue in identifying this bottle – it’s from the Nehi Cola Company Par-T-Pak line. Nehi Cola first appeared in 1924 as a addition to the Chero-Cola companies line of products. Nehi Cola offered a wider variety of flavors including orange, grape, root beer, peach and others. Nehi was so successful it outsold Chero-Cola and the company changed its name to Nehi in 1928. In a slightly ironic twist of fate, once the company reformulated Chero-Cola and rebranded it Royal Crown Cola (or RC Cola), the new cola outsold Nehi and the company eventually changed it’s name to Royal Crown (SHA / Wikipedia).
The large bottle Par-T-Pak line included cola, ginger ale, sparkling water/club soda, black cherry, lemon lime, orange, grape, strawberry, root beer, and Tom Collins mixer. The Par-T-Pak line was first introduced by Nehi in 1933 (Lockhart) and was likely offered until the mid 60s. The tag line was “When you celebrate … Enjoy America’s Party Drink!” This size bottle was specifically marketed as drink mixers with the larger size noted as being economical for parties (since it was meant to serve six). It is perhaps not a coincidence that these “party size” bottles went on the market right at the end of Prohibition.
Marketing from the 1950s was pushing the benefits of the bottle size specifically as an alcoholic drink mixer: “There’s extra sparkle at parties whenever Par-T-Pak is served! For Par-T-Pak “mixers” are so sparkling they stir as they pour! No longer do highballs have to be swizzled or stirred!” (Life Magazine March 27th, 1950). This full color advertisement suggests that the bottle we have is likely ginger ale, as it is the only notable dark green bottles. Although our bottle predates these advertisements (the East Lansing dump was used from 1907 to the late 1930s), the bottling coloring and flavor options appeared to have been stable.
It’s easy to focus on alcohol bottles and overlook their best friend – the mixer! Many of the cocktails we know and love today have their origins in pre-prohibition (drinks like the daiquiri, the Manhattan, the martini, or the mojito). The 13 year legal draught caused by prohibition, and the long lasting impact of the Great Depression, certainly put somewhat of damper on American cocktail culture. The introduction of Nehi Par-T-Pak’s in the 1930s fit right in with America’s budget friendly mindset, and the welcome legal re-introduction of alcohol.
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…
No, I’ll stop any speculation; we haven’t uncovered any hand grenades (think of how much paperwork that would be!). But we do have a horseshoe. Now you might be saying, so what? You’ve surely recovered horseshoes before. And yes, that’s true. We have found full…
The site where Brody Hall stands today (intersection of Harrison & Michigan Ave) was once used by the city East Lansing as a landfill. There is little historical documentation on the landfill, which made it difficult to find information about the site. What we do know is that it was active from the early 1900s until the 1940s. The artifacts recovered during construction projects and CAP excavations near Brody and the Emmons amphitheater date to the late 1920s and early 1930s. This suggests that this particular portion of the landfill was used during that time period. The most plentiful artifact type is glass bottles. The bottles show us a rare glimpse of the different kinds of products used by people living in East Lansing at the time, from health products to milk and alcohol bottles.
The process of dating the bottles was not too complicated, mostly due to the guide the Society for Historical Archaeology has that explains the changes of bottle morphology though time. Small markings such as lines or pontiff marks that are caused during the process of glass molding can tell help you narrow down the time frame more. As the methods used for making glass bottles changed, small characteristics of the bottles changed with it. Another way for dating glass bottles are the codes/date stamps or company marks found on the bottom, similar to the way modern day plastic bottles have numbers for the quality of plastic and recycling marks. These bottle marks are a much faster way to identify the company that manufactured the bottle and can even be helpful enough to tell you the time frame it could have been made and even the location it was manufactured.
It has been interesting to learn about how the process for making bottles has changed throughout time because it is something that I normally would not have the opportunity to research. For my research project this semester I have decided to focus on learning what I can about health in East Lansing around that time. By looking at these bottles I have started thinking about the types of products we found and comparing it with the kinds of products we still use today. The similar products were household cleaners, such as bleach or ammonia, and various kinds of alcohol like whiskey and wine, but when looking at the healthcare products we found some things I would not have thought of as being used.
The products used for cleaning such as Roman Cleanser, the first commercial version of bleach cleansers, and Little Bo beep Ammonia are not new to many people. Some of the kinds of alcohol we found that many have not heard of are Wilkin’s Whiskey and Hiram Walker Whiskey. The healthcare products we found were Wildroot and Vitalis, haircare products that are still around, but have fallen out of common use. There were also a few bottles of Bromo-Seltzer, an early form of antacids. Hair gel and antacids are not new products, but it is easy to see that varieties and companies can be popular at a point in time, but then other companies rise to replace them. There were still some healthcare products that were easily recognizable, such as the Listerine bottle mentioned in a previous post. Another way to be able to see how the culture thought of the product in that time is to look at their advertisements. Looking at these products and their advertisements can show us the differences in ways of life that we normally would not think about. Researching health from this time period has been an eye-opener for how people used to live. I have learned so much about the different kinds of health and how much we have changed over the past hundred years.
If you’ve been following the blog you may have noticed the many interesting artifacts, mostly bottles, found during the Brody Hall and Emmons Amphitheater area excavations. Since the Brody complex is built above the old East Lansing Landfill, these excavations provided us with an array…