The Evolution of Communications and the Forbidden Fragrance of TABU

I continue to figure out this “media thang”…at 64 and counting…it is a far cry from the old telephone my parents had.   At first when we lived in Ithaca, New York, my parents called the operator and she rang a number…and vice versa to receive a call.  AND kids…the phone was NEVER ours to use. I remember the iconic, Bakelite black phone with its own throne in the hallway of our Ithaca, New York home on 710 South Plain Street.  One of my earliest toddler memories is enveloping myself in my mother’s voluptuous skirts…baby fingers tenderly clutching her silken slip, breathing in her TABU perfume and listening to her answer the phone.  Funny how I recall her voice…not HELLO…but

“MARTIN RESIDENCE, Mrs. A. E. Martin speaking”.

I think she took her cue from her paternal grandmother who referred to herself as “Mrs. E. A. Smith”. Grand…simple and in the etiquette of the day.

The phone was hard wired into the wall…and the “cord” was thick and covered with a woven textile and it WEIGHED around 2 POUNDS vs. today’s 2 plus OUNCES. And it SMELLED.  I don’t know how to characterize it…other than it was “electric”.  My brother, Dave,  still has the maple, gate-legged table…the THRONE…in his possession.

We…the Martin children….weren’t even allowed to ANSWER the telephone…not “phone”!  I was never even aware of it without the context of my mother.  And it only “rang” when the caller had something critical to communicate.  Long distance calls were major events…saved for holidays…birthdays and emergencies…usually fraught with intense worry or joy. And everyone shouted into the phone as if the long distance required it.  Long distance was never like today’s time and geography leap of  SKYPE’s easy and free “howdy doo”.

When I was just shy of five years old, we moved to Auburn, New York and then we had a party line of three people…the cheapest option.   Our first phone number in Auburn, New York was five digits with an exchange…8579 were the last digits as I recall.  The BELL telephone operators were on Court Street and eventually on South Street.  I remember seeing the women at the “boards” connecting callers through the warm light of the big windows.  My mother knew so many of them.   Funny how it was acceptable to walk down the street or ride the city bus and peer into windows without the hint of impropriety or threat.  Friendly. Home.

If someone in the party line was using the telephone…you picked up the telephone and could listen in though the sensitive person would gently put the “receiver” back in the cradle.   It was acceptable to interrupt and ask them to “give you” the line.  And they usually did.  People cooperated in a neighborly way.  AND if you were persnickety…or your party line neighbors were…or you were an adolescent like my sister, Mary, intent on occupying the line for hours….your parents had a “private” line.  You PAID for that…but incoming and outgoing was YOURS and your neighbors were not inconvenienced.  Very important in those days to be polite.

After my father’s death and our severely reduced income, it was a dear expense in our household to have a private line.  But then…my mother was intent on propriety and we shared our party line with our neighbor, the diminutive widow,  Tillie Irish.  Widows were especially held in high regard by my mother who was a member of that terrible sorority and she was not about to “create a scene”.   Mary was a teenager by the mid 1960’s and the phone was becoming the purview of America’s youth.  The phone had left its throne…still the maple, gate-legged table… and following the now longer cord…to the coat closet,  the young teen was ensconced with her homework, her girlfriends…a flashlight and the hallowed family telephone.  I was just five years older than my sister…and it might as well have been a Jurassic difference…my friends and I still walked to  each other’s homes and communicated with one another in school.  I barely touched the still black…still heavy…telephone.  It was a harbinger of emergency use only for me and, indeed, when my father had suffered a fatal heart attack in 1958, I ran to my mother…not the telephone.  I was 10 years old and it was not for children to dial the operator.  It was a long time for me to regard the telephone…let alone what was to come…as mine to use at will.

I think my mother’s phone number remained the same for the decades she lived in Auburn…with some “exchange” and area code additions.

Where am I going with this?   I can be online on my laptop…on my iPhone (and if I can swing it this year…on an iPad) with what I appreciate as dizzying speed and multilevel communication.  I am an old geek…multi-tasking anywhere I am,  if you will.  And the “anywhere” could be in Philadelphia, London, Tokyo, Florence, Italy or in the familiar surrounds of my hometown of Auburn or where I was born and toddled on Plain Street in Ithaca, New York.

Am I more efficient…happier…smarter?  I don’t honestly know.  In my lifetime…I have gone from blissfully walking down the street of my hometown..riding the city bus to school or work…daydreaming and alone without feeling lonely…to commuting with only the AM/FM radio in my car to keep me company and eventually to the current day manic constant availability.  Today…alone and feeling lonely more than I would like to admit.  I LOVE my iPhone…my laptop is my constant companion….and if I get an iPad…I am as lost as the first primitive that went from the lone spirit drawing with resins on cave walls in the flickering light of ancient fires to rhythmic and syncopated drumming on logs…to sending signals by smoke and fire to a neighboring clan.  I do admit to the tin can and string thing when I was a kid.

Perhaps if today’s technology felt like silk and smelled “electric” with the forbidden fragrance of TABU.

Excuse me..I mean XME.   I have an incoming message on FB and three emails…and a VM on my iPhone…gotta go.  LOL.


Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

One thought on “The Evolution of Communications and the Forbidden Fragrance of TABU

  1. Deb – brings back some great memories. Now we know how our parents and grandparents felt when the new fangled electronic items came into their lives. Nicely written piece. – Sue

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