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When it was all about the “Telephone”…

October 3, 2009
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So the reason our building even exists is due to the invention of the telephone. While we can debate about who invented it, it became all the rage in the 1900’s and the growth of households to get telephones was exponential at the turn of the century. Because it was dependent on a physically connected wire between the caller and the receiver, “exchanges” were necessary to switch your phone connection to the person you wanted to talk to. We’ll leave the technical details to other sites (thank you Google!) but it was basically like running an extension cord for your Christmas lights – you needed to plug one end into the other. So if you needed to call Gladys on the next street over, you would pick up your receiver and an electrical connection would be completed and you were talking with Mabel the operator – you’d say “Good Morning Mabel! Would you please connect me to Gladys?” and then Mabel would say “Good morning Andy – gladly!” and Mabel would pull your cable that came from your house and plug it into the socket that connected to Gladys’s house. Gladys’s phone would ring, and if she answered you would then chat about your boring daily agenda.

"Howdy Mabel! Can you connect me with Gladys?"

Now, if you needed to talk to Uncle Joe, who lived outside of your exchange, Mabel would connect you with the exchange building where Uncle Joe lived. That would mean you would have to wait while Mabel chatted with Betty Jo who was the operator for Uncle Joe. Once they were done with their personal business, Betty Jo would make the final connection between you and your Uncle Joe. Hopefully he was home.

Here’s a photograph of our building when it was first constructed; we like to say ‘this’ when we see this photo: “Awww – this was when our building was a puppy…”

822 Wilmington - Original Building


Just like the explosion of the Wii in this decade, a hundred years ago everyone thought the telephone was the hottest “Christmas gift ever” (not really). But expansion was inevitable, and as telephone subscribers increased, the need to expand equipment and personnel was inevitable. By 1923, the “Riverside Central Exchange Office” had doubled in size and was expanded twice it’s length. The functions were basically the same: equipment on lower levels, and lots of pretty women employed as operators.

Below is a photograph of the CONSTRUCTION of that expansion, and then another of the completed expansion.

822 Wilmington - First expansion under construction

822 Wilmington - 1923 Expansion - Completed


Apparently even more people wanted to be able to use the telephone, and in 1925, the SWB expanded the building to the east with just a first floor expansion – this was mainly for additional equipment. It was not the full length of the lot either – just about 60 feet long. Unfortunately, for the neighbors, the expansion went right up to their house, and the new exterior wall was basically touching the house. I’m guessing the owner of the house back then got some cash or something from SWB – they probably lost a few windows. We like this photo because you can see a gas street lamp and an old motorized buggy.

822 Wilmington - 1925 Expansion - one story to the east


The next expansion of 1928 was the largest, and since it filled the building to the property lines, it would be the last, unless SWB figured how to acquire the little house next door. We don’t have any pictures of that addition – well, perhaps we do – it’s exactly how the building looks today.

Lack of room to expand wasn’t why Southwestern Bell finally left 822 Wilmington – it was technology. The 30’s brought the invention of the “dial” component of the telephone – which was important to our building in two ways: 1) if Andy could dial Gladys directly, why did he ever need Mabel the operator (and all her other friends that worked there) to complete his calls? and 2) the equipment areas of the building were filled to capacity with NON-dial equipment and switches – to convert the equipment to dial would mean taking OUT existing customer switches. So instead, SWB constructed a NEW building a couple miles away at the intersection of January Ave and Eichelberger Ave, and when that building went online, the customers lines at “Riverside” (822 Wilmington) were redirected to the new building. That building is still online today with about 60,000sf of space over three floors – and probably has one of those “secret rooms” where all of our phone conversations are recorded for the government. 🙂

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