Courtesy the Building Technology Heritage Library

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization.

Before telephones became a near-permanent fixture by our side, sales and marketing teams proclaimed the potential of the technology. “The telephone is admittedly one of the greatest aids to the effective prosecution of business affairs, and it is difficult to conceive how modern commerce could be conducted without it,” declared a 1920s trade catalog for telephone equipment in its opener. The Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL) provides a look at the evolution of the telephone as a piece of communication technology and even the specialty furnishing that once housed it.

The built-in “telephone cabinet” was once a common feature of residential interiors; it appears in multiple woodwork catalogs from the 1920s through the 1940s. In larger buildings, integrated telephone systems were found in both residential and commercial applications. One catalog focuses on hospital phone systems, starting with the “nurses call station,” still a part of hospital design today. Below, the BTHL reminds us what the telephone looked like when it was still connected to wires.

The Standard Underground Cable Co., Standard Underground Cable Company, Pittsburgh, 1884

One of the oldest documents in the BTHL related to the telephone is a catalog for underground cables for “telegraph, telephone and electric light.” The opening paragraph notes that “the strong public feeling against telegraph and telephone poles and wires, and the manifest advantages of placing all electric conductors under ground.”

Catalog No. 14: Electrical Supplies, Frank H. Stewart Electric Co., Philadelphia, 1900s

More than a dozen models of wall and desk phones appear in this catalog, including several office systems that allow for multiple phone lines.

Electrical Equipment Supplies, The Electric Goods Mfg. Co., Boston, 1910s

This catalog has a very comprehensive offering of telephones, annunciators and fire alarms, including telephone systems for apartment buildings.

The Relay Automatic Telephone System, Relay Automatic Telephone Co., London, 1920s

“The telephone is admittedly one of the greatest aids to the effective prosecution of business affairs, and it is difficult to conceive how modern commerce could be conducted without it,” this catalog states: Words that still ring true today.

Edwards Telephone Systems and Devices Catalog No. 12, Edward and Co., New York, 1927

This catalog features phone systems for larger institutional properties. The catalog opens with a selection of combined mailboxes and “vestibule telephones” for apartment buildings.

Planning for the Home Telephone, Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Co., USA, 1928

This documents features examples of various house types with recommendations for the placement of telephones. A special supplement at the end covers the use of underground service entrances.

Connecticut Hospital Signal Systems, Connecticut Telephone & Electric Corp., Meriden, Conn., 1931

The “nurses call station” and related hospital telephone systems are the feature product in this catalog. The company also offered telephone systems for apartment houses, industrial plants, schools and banks.

Standardized Interior Woodwork, F.M. Johnson Lumber Co., Fitchburg, Mass., 1932

This large woodwork catalog has a special section on “telephone cabinets,” a popular item in residential design from the 1920s to 1940s.

Plan for Telephone in the Home You Build, Bell Telephone Co., USA, 1948

This pamphlet highlights main points to consider in planning for “concealed wiring.” The Bell System “furnishes a telephone planning service without charge to all architects, contractors and home builders.”

Concealed Telephone Wiring will Help Sell your Home, Bell Telephone Systems, USA, 1960

Modern homes should be “telephone planned,” this document declares in its opening statement. The sample plan indicates more than a dozen locations in a typical ranch house for the installation of phone jacks.