- Hello! ma baby
Hello! ma honey
Hello! ma ragtime gal
Send me a kiss by wire
Baby, ma heart’s on fire!
If you refuse me
Honey, you’ll lose me
Then you’ll be left alone
Oh, baby, telephone
And tell me I’m your own!
— Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson, “Hello! Ma Baby,” 1899.
Early in 1901, the pages of the Daily Local News were abuzz with word that a group of businessmen was attempting to lure the Sun Electric Manufacturing Co., of Philadelphia, to relocate to West Chester. The Sun Co. manufactured telephones, which were the hot new technology of 1901. Anyone who could wanted a piece of the action, and start-ups sprouted throughout the country to license and build the miraculous devices (a craze that would repeat itself in the 1970s and 1980s with home computers, which gave rise to one of West Chester’s most famous employers — Commodore International). The town was “too quiet,” one article opined, “and will be slower unless we get something of this kind.” Their pleas worked; by May, the contract to build a factory was let, and by October the factory was built at Franklin and Lacey Streets and employing about 40 people in the manufacture of many types of telephones and related equipment.
But it was not meant to last.
In March 1902, the factory was closed up. The company proved to be a hollow sham. The creditors and stockholders would find that their money was gone. Angry shareholders forced a reorganization, but in the end the company was bought lock, stock, and barrel by Mr. Robert Walker of Oxford, who in turn sold it to the Eastern Electrical Construction Company, which in turn sold it to a subsidiary.
That subsidiary incorporated itself as the Eastern Telephone Manufacturing Company in December 1902, and by early 1903 the plant was back up and humming along producing telephones using the same stock, albeit at a small loss. By 1904 the plant was making a small, but steady profit. By 1905, the.plant was becoming one of West Chester’s most promising new industries, “employ[ing] quite a number of men and boys to fill the orders for electrical goods. The class of work being turned out . . . is of the finest sort and in demand.” Sales were mostly in the western part of the state, as the East Coast was fully dominated by Bell Telephone and its subsidiaries, including Western Electric.
But then tragedy struck. In October of that year, the president of the company, W.T. Barnard, died after a long battle with Bright’s Disease. Nervous buyers were hesitant the company could survive much longer, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Orders slacked off considerably, and the axe finally fell in June 1906, when the plant was closed and the stock, machinery, and patents were sold off to the Dean Electric Company, of Elyria, Ohio.
It was a Model 11 telephone (see above) that I bought from a local man, who himself bought it at an estate auction in Delaware County. It was missing a bell, its receiver, and the crank for the magneto.
All minor details, as it would so happen. Reproductions were all available, and I decided to make it obvious they were reproductions; no fooling.
Obviously the rubber and the wiring had some issues. The microphone needed an awful lot of work — cleaning, disassembly, and rewiring. A coil of old cloth wire, courtesy of my late grandfather, was just the trick. And it was soon done.
A bigger problem was the missing receiver. They weren’t made anymore, and though they could be purchased, they were awfully hard to obtain and VERY expensive.
Luckily I didn’t have to worry about that. One sunny afternoon I decided to take a hike along the remains of the old Chester County Canal (built 1828, distinct from the Schuylkill Canal) at Phoenixville. Sandwiched between the railroad and the river, the path was little used. So disused that when it reached French Creek, it all but disappeared. As I struggled to find my way back, I found myself in a drainage ditch. I saw a black plastic-y thing half-buried in the mud. Thinking it was a bicycle handle, I kicked it up.
It was not a bicycle handle.
It was the exact receiver I was seeking. The EXACT one. Unbelievable! The odds were beyond astronomical. Practically providential. But find it I did. And it still worked! I struggled to free it from the rust, but I did. The magnet element was still good, and all it needed was a new diaphragm and a new cord.
And just like that, it was done.