Gaye LeBaron’s recent Press Democrat column (June 28, 2009) laments the demise of real, live, telephone operators and makes a case for the return of their switchboards, while waxing nostalgic: “Operator! Just speaking the word opens a floodgate of memories. ‘Operator, get me long distance, please. Yes, I’ll wait. Thank you.’ It conjures up images of sensible, dependable, friendly women in headsets, sitting at their switchboards, controlling the pulse of the community…” As always, LeBaron entertains us, too, with great anecdotes from operators about their careers of making connections.

(At right: Telephone operators in 1906 Petaluma, when the town had about the same number of phones as Santa Rosa. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The beginning of the end, she writes, came with the introduction of local direct dial service in the years after WWII.* Maybe it’s a quibble, but that was the last step of a process that started way back in 1905, when the Sunset telephone company first insisted that callers must provide the operator with someone’s assigned number instead of just a name or address. As written here earlier, it may seem a small thing today, but it was a bit of a milestone in the history of the way we use technology, being probably the first time that an individual (as opposed to a location or an institution) was associated with such an abstract thing as a series of numbers. Once the rotary dial telephone was available nationally in 1919, it was only a matter of time before every Central Office had the switching equipment to make local operators obsolete.

Her column also reminded me of a 1906 humor item about the befuddlements some faced when asked, “number, please.”

* Santa Rosa had the “LIberty” exchange (which we’ve always used on our Comstock House calling cards, to the confusion of nearly everyone), Sebastopol had VAlley to match its 82x numbers, and Sonoma had WEbster for its 93x prefix.


Mr. Miggles was trying to call up a friend who lived in a suburban town, says the New Orleans Picayune. Mr. Miggles looked up the number, then got central.

“Hello,” he said. “Give me Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven.”

“Elmsdale? I’ll give you the long-distance.”

Long distance asked, “What is it?”

“Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven.”

“Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven?”


“What is your number?”

“I just told you. Elmsdale two-ought–“

“I mean your house number.”

“Sixty-five Blicken street.”

“Oh, that isn’t what I mean. Your phone number.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Asked Mr. Miggles, who is noted for his quick temper.

“I did. What is it?”

“Violet Park eight-seven-seven.”

“Violet Park eight-seven-seven?”

“And what number do you want?”

“Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven.”

“What is your name?”

“My name is John Henry Miggles. I live at 65 Blicken street, Violet park; my house ‘phone is Violet Park eight-seven-seven, or eight-double-seven, as you choose; I am married; have no children; we keep a dog and a cat and a perpetual fern and a Boston fern and–“

“All that is unnecessary, sir. We merely–“

“And last summer we didn’t have a bit of luck with our roses. I tried to have a little garden, too, but the neighbors’ chickens got away with that; the house is green, with red gables; there is a cement walk from the street; I am 40 years old; my wife is younger, and looks it; we have a piano; keep a cook and an upstairs girl; had the front bedroom papered last week and I want to–“

“Did you want Elmsdale two-ought-four-seven?”

“Yes,” gasped Mr. Miggles.

“Well, the circuit is busy now. Please call again.”

But Mr. Miggles wrote a letter.

– Santa Rosa Republican, August 20, 1906

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Pity Luther Burbank; his single greatest invention was his own celebrity — yet he craved solitude and loathed the public that adored him.

As mentioned in an earlier piece on Burbank, he faced an exhausting daily siege from tourists, some assuming they would have a nice visit with him and chat about their begonias, or something. An essay published years later documented his torment: “Passing from the garage to the house he runs the gauntlet of outstretched hands and cheery greetings. He bows right and left and impatiently tells the callers he regrets that he cannot stop to talk with them. At the door a man waylays him and grabs his hand only to be thrust aside. Another more daring than the rest follows him into his study…after Burbank finally sits down to lunch the telephone announces that a party of 75 or 100 persons have arrived in town and wish to be conducted over his gardens. The local Chamber of Commerce secretary protests that the party was sent over by a travel bureau, a plan that Burbank had approved months earlier…”

Burbank was in a quandary. While his business success depended on his continued superstar-class fame as the “plant wizard,” he simply couldn’t work with adoring fans pestering him, supposedly six thousand in 1905 alone (curiously, that same figure was also quoted for 1904 and 1906). Making matters worse, his home and gardens were not on some remote country road, but just a few inviting steps away from downtown Santa Rosa.

Burbank first tried to fend off the unwelcome rabble by selling permits that would allow someone to talk to him for a few minutes. When that didn’t work, he took to adding testy signs around his yard. Posted just inside his otherwise-neighborly white picket fence was the first notice:


Further in was another warning:


Those undaunted (or clueless) then had to fill out a questionnaire, as noted in another book. “…Should a person succeed in running the gauntlet of these protective signs, there is still another provision which must be faced. When the inside of the door is reached, this slip is in readiness. I take the current one from the block on a day in May, 1905:”

None of that apparently slowed the ill-mannered tide, and the following year, overt threats were posted on every gate:


As reported in the Press Democrat item below, Burbank — sorry, “the Friends and Relatives of Luther Burbank” — also printed a circular that went still further, implying that the ignorant masses were endangering the great man’s life by even writing to ask a question or seek work (although Burbank’s secretary was already sending a rejection form letter to all job-seekers). It closed with a blunt warning to keep away from him and his property: “The public has no moral, legal or other right to invade his grounds, his home, his private office or his laboratories.” The whole tactless missive can be found in a August 5, 1906 New York Times profile:

First–Mr. Burbank has nothing for sale.

Second–He is not a nurseryman, not a florist, not a seedsman, not a dealer, and not a raiser of any kind of plants or seeds for sale.

Third–He is an originator of new kinds of useful and ornamental trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables, grasses, and grains.

A great portion of his time is utterly wasted in replying to questions which should never have been asked of him. Even by the most strenuous efforts and with all the stenographic force which can be accommodated, many of his letters have to remain from three to six months before a brief moment of time can be obtained even to briefly reply. Alas! There are only twenty-four hours in each day.

Over 6,000 visitors were received on his grounds during the year 1904. All the important experimental work was delayed beyond recall, grounds overrun with crowds from day-light to ten o’clock at night, no rest even on Sundays or holidays. Business destroyed, rare plants died from want of care. Attention constantly drawn from legitimate matters, letters neglected, telegrams delayed; meals taken standing, sleep disturbed, health at the point of destruction, visitors calling at all hours, without regard to Mr. Burbank’s convenience, each one being under the fixed and unalterable impression that he or she was the one particular one who should be admitted.

This was too much. The question arose, Should he continue his valuable researches undisturbed, or should he be murdered piecemeal as a showman?

The public has no moral, legal or other right to invade his grounds, his home, his private office or his laboratories.


People Pester Mr. Burbank With Foolish Questions and Ask for Positions

On account of the great annoyance given Mr. Luther Burbank, the eminent horticulturist, by people writing all kinds of questions, some of them very foolish, and all of them expecting an answer from him, and on account of the scores of applications for positions that pour in upon him, when in reality he has no positions to offer, and is not in the employment business as many of the inquiries seem to imply, a circular letter, making some plain statements, is being sent out in response to the hundreds of inquiries made and it is signed “By the Relatives and Friends of Luther Burbank.”

This step had to be taken in an endeavor to check the endless flow of correspondence, much of which is, as stated, altogether unnecessary and including some of the most ridiculous queries imaginable in order to let Mr. Burbank have an opportunity to give more attention to the great work he has in hand.

Hundreds of letters, for instance, come to the Burbank residence, asking the price of this plant or that, or something else. The reply being sent is to the effect that Mr. Burbank has nothing to sell, and that he is not a florist or nurseryman in the ordinary acceptance of the term, as many of the writers evidently suppose. The letter further states that Mr. Burbank places his creations in the hands of the great seedsmen of this country, and in other countries, comprising the greater part of the world, and a list of them is given.

The letter states that as each applicant for a position is received it is registered, and to date no less than 2,552 applications have been made and mail brings more. Attention is also called to the hordes of callers that annually visit Mr. Burbank, on no particular mission except to hinder him in his work, and each caller expecting that it is his or her right to have their questions answered by Mr. Burbank.

As stated the main reason for sending out the circular letter is to check the demand upon Mr. Burbank’s time, allow him to devote more attention to his work in giving the world new fruits and flowers, and more important still, give him a little rest.

– Press Democrat, February 3, 1906

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Rule #1 in advertising is to make products sound less objectionable than they really are, so you’d expect a bottle of something called “Danderine” to be an anti-dandruff medication that probably smelled godawful and burned like hell as you dumped the goo on your flaky scalp. Not at all; for about a half century, Danderine was widely sold, and used as a hair conditioner and styling gel that smelled like aftershave lotion.

In the first years of the 20th century, the company promoted it as a “hair-growing remedy” safe enough for children, such as the manufacturer’s daughter seen in this 1906 Santa Rosa Republican ad. In the 1910s, newspaper and magazine ads portrayed young women with waist-length tresses, and the implied promise that using the stuff would make your hair easier to style in the late Edwardian bouffant fashion. Danderine’s heyday apparently came in the 1920s, with ads that targeted women with shorter, bobbed hair. Danderine was now a “one-minute hair beautifier” that would make your hair “appear twice as heavy and plentiful.”

The “twice as heavy” claim could well be true, after it was used for a few weeks; a 1907 analysis found that about five percent of the borax and glycerin in the formula never evaporated, staying behind in your hair as residue. A later chemical analysis found Danderine was mostly alcohol, with glycerin, boric acid and resorcin (the anti-dandruff part of the formula), salicylic acid (aspirin), capsicum (pepper), and apparently cantharidin, a potentially lethal chemical that’s infamously known as “Spanish Fly.”

Danderine was so well-known that its advertising claims were repeated like folklore. A 1919 book on public health has the story of a rural Kentucky woman claiming to know someone who hadn’t washed her hair in 28 years, yet “had a beautiful suit of hair that reached clear to her knees… [because] every morning she combed her hair with a large comb which she had dipped in Danderine.”

Danderine was sold at least through the 1940s, and was followed in the later half of the 20th century by “Double Danderine” shampoo, which promised to “kill the [dandruff] germ on contact. “

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