Friday, November 9, 2018

“The Bonds of Telegraphy:” class and gender politics of the urban telegraph

Advertisement for American District Telegraph, by Schmidt Label Co., San Francisco; early 1880s. (Image courtesy of the Bancroft)

I'll be presenting a paper on the urban telegraph this weekend at the Social Science History Association meeting in Phoenix. Here is the abstract:

Despite the well-worn analogy of the early telegraph as a “Victorian internet,” the story of the intra-urban telegraph—which might be called a “city-wide web”— has been almost completely neglected. In the 1870s, the American District Telegraph Company developed a dial-based interface that simplified the use of the telegraph, making possible a network connecting the businesses and homes of wealthy subscribers to a city of services. The interconnectivity provided by the urban telegraph promised both to transform urban space in the bourgeoisie’s image, and to professionalize the occupations—messengers, firemen, police, and hackdrivers—whose services were ordered through the telegraph callbox. More than simply a communication device, the urban telegraph promised to alter the class and gender constellations of advantage and disadvantage relating to public space and mobility.

This paper will focus on how the urban telegraph realigned advantage and disadvantage for both customers and workers, in particular though the provision of dispatched hack service. Telegraph dispatch increased the disadvantage of working-class hackdrivers vis-a-vis their wealthy customers, by constraining drivers’ movements, behavior, and control over the negotiation of fares and acquisition of passengers. At the same time, the urban telegraph brought new advantages to women customers, whose access to public space and mobility were increased, though not without controversy. Although the urban telegraph was quickly supplanted by the spread of the telephone, its story provides insight into the ongoing search for technological fixes for the complicated class and gender politics of urban space.