Millenia from now, historians will puzzle over our love affair with phones. Museums will have exhibits where our distant descendants can handle one of the ancient devices (or more likely, a recreation) so they can marvel that such poor quality sound was once acceptable, and how their ancestors even used the things to send text messages, although the device wasn’t designed for it.

Welcome to 1885.

This is the story of how the telephone came to Sonoma county. It happened much earlier than you might expect – before electric lights (and only shortly after gas lighting was available in the larger towns), before Santa Rosa had a sewer system and even before Petaluma hatched its first Leghorn chicken.

It’s not necessary here to rehash who invented it and when; for practical purposes it emerged when Bell exhibited a working telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Almost immediately, it became America’s first must-have gadget.

As few people back then actually knew what it was like to use a phone (spoiler alert: Faint and muffled sound over crackly connections), wild and silly claims were made about how it was about to transform the world. People who were nearly deaf would be able to understand a whisper. The 1876 New York Times lamented this was the end of the Republic because we would soon all stay at home or in “telephone rooms” listening to live music or great sermons. The Santa Rosa paper griped that a major 1878 San Francisco music festival (see ad at right) would be transmitted by “telephonic connection” to Sacramento but not available for our community to enjoy.

(Lest we feel too smug about the old-timers being snookered with unrealistic expectations, anyone over thirty years might remember the TV commercials promoting the early hype about the internet in 1994 and 1995. According to AT&T, every aspect of our lives would be enslaved to the corporation, using AT&T video pay phones and sending each other notes handwritten on AT&T tablets. The old telecom MCI presented its vision of the future which was more Zen, as a little girl scampered around a beach, pausing only long enough to recite a few garbled remarks about “empowering technology.”)

Sonoma county first got its hands on a telephone in 1878, when the telegraph company commandeered the wire between Santa Rosa and Petaluma for a two-hour demo one Sunday night. Papers in both towns gave it a good review; the Sonoma Democrat remarked “conversations and music on flute and piano were distinctly heard” and the Petaluma Courier said it “sounded as though it was but a short distance away.” Before the official start of the demonstration, however, apparently a wise guy in the Santa Rosa office got on the line (the Courier reporter described it as “a voice that sounded something like a little boy speaking from under a bed cover”) and passed on some juicy gossip. The telegraph company supervisor told him to ignore that as “telemischief,” which is a pretty good word that deserves to be revived today.

The earliest telephones in the county were more like intercoms connecting no more than a handful of receivers. First were probably the 1878 lines in Petaluma connecting the McNear’s store with their mill and family homes; the next year there was a network based at a Cloverdaie station reaching the Skaggs Springs resort and Geyserville. (That included a line to the tavern called “Fossville” where daredevil stagecoach driver Clark Foss would speak to Robert Louis Stevenson, the author struggling to use a telephone for the first time – see The Silverado Squatters.) And there was a wire across the west end of the Russian River, so the ferry could be summoned from the Duncans Mills hotel (“just how much unnecessary yelling – and swearing, too – this arrangement saves, will be known and appreciated by persons living up the coast”).

During the early 1880s more of these customized telephones were installed in Santa Rosa and Petaluma (a man named Parshley apparently did most of the work) but it’s unclear if they were all connected together in a single in-town circuit. My guess is they certainly were, and they used a ring code to let someone know whether the call was intended for them. Nothing about this was mentioned in the papers, however.



FUTURE SHOCK:1907 (includes “How to Telephone”)


Newspapers in Santa Rosa and Petaluma also displayed a near-obsessive yearning for the thing we could not have: Reaching San Francisco and the world beyond. Probably every weekly issue of the Democrat had some reprinted item revolving around telephones. Sometimes it was an element in the serial novel unwinding chapter by chapter each week, but usually it was the catalyst for a funny item which ended up with someone mortified in embarrassment. A NY grocer couldn’t afford a telephone so he had a dummy made and pretended to take big orders to impress his customers – until he was caught faking a call from a hotel which no longer existed. A San Francisco dance hall promoter thought he was ordering racy posters from a printer but was connected by mistake to the matron of an exclusive girl’s school in Oakland. O, Victorian-era humor, thou art such polite gentle fun, teehee.

Sonoma county’s years in the telephonic wilderness ended in the summer of 1884, when a 7-line phone cable (!) was dropped across the Golden Gate. The Sunset Telephone Company signed up enough subscribers to bring the service through Marin to Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Guerneville and Sebastopol. Rates were never mentioned in the papers but it must have been quite expensive; there were few residential customers – although one of the early home subscribers was consummate tech nerd James Wyatt Oates.

But just as Santa Rosa cuddled up to the idea of talking to people far away, the Democrat announced that it was obsolete – in the very near future we would be typing text messages to each other. “Any One Capable of Manipulating a Typewriter May Easily Transmit and Receive Messages,” read a 1885 headline.



The article reprinted from the NY World explained, “It is not a verbal telephone, but will supersede that instrument by silently and rapidly recording all messages upon paper.” The reporter claimed, “forty to fifty words per minute were easily sent by a person who was not at all an expert, and received automatically at the other end of the line without errors.”

What was being described was an early teleprinter system, and unfortunately the paper did not mention the name of the inventor or company. If the device really worked as described it was far ahead of its time, as there would be nothing like this available commercially for over twenty years.

It may seem hard to imagine why such a device did not catch on; “its simple and inexpensive construction and the ease of operating it” should have brought it widespread appeal. Its Achilles’ heel, however, was the need to have a dedicated line between the teleprinters, and in that era almost every telephone customer was on a party line. Thus if you texted your sister in Pomona about your lumbago, teleprinters in a dozen or more offices or homes near her might also clatter to life. Because of this weakness, the optimistic 1885 article predicted tens of thousands of new telegraph offices would pop up all over the country to send and receive these texts.

But the telephone endured despite its limitations, and the very idea of it continued to fire imaginations. So exotic was the telephone that scores of paper startups called themselves the “telephone” – the closest to us were in Sausalito and Eureka, but there Daily Telephones and Evening Telephones all over the country. A Santa Rosa barber shop in 1885 even offered a free “Telephone bath” with every haircut; what that meant is a mystery, but on Facebook author Elissa DeCaro guessed it could have meant rinsing off with a handheld bathtub attachment. (The “New Orleans Rub” is also a puzzle, but probably was not naughty at all, sorry.)

A later version of the ad mentions, “A Telephone bath or a New Orleans Rub without extra charge. Hair tonic for sale warranted to cure dandruff and all skin diseases”


…Recently some very interesting experiments have been tried on the wires in communicating musical sounds. An instrument called the telephone has been invented, which transmits directly the pitch of a sound to a distant station so that, for instance, when an operator at one end of a wire sings or plays any tune on it it will be heard and distinguished plainly at the other…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1869

It is related that deaf persons, who have great difficulty in nearing ordinary speech, find that by applying the telephone close to the ear they can hear even a whisper with distinctness.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 27 1878

Telephone.—Preparations are making to place several cities in telephonic connection with San Francisco on the event of the grand concert to be given in that city in the near future, that other people may have the benefit of the music without the expense of a trip, in addition to the price of a ticket. Why not Santa Rosa be favored in a similar manner? If Sacramento can hear and enjoy the sweet sounds by means of the telephone, why not Santa Rosa?

– Sonoma Democrat, May 4 1878


The Telephone.

Yes, we have seen and heard it, and now propose to tell all about it…We were invited to take a seat by a table, on which was a box about the size of a candle box with a lot of loose wire and other things in it. We at once concluded that this must be the telephone, and having determined before we reached the office to act just as though we had been familiar with such instruments all our lives, we pounced into the chair, and placing our ear just over the loose wire above spoken of, were prepared to hear anything that might be passing. Pretty soon we heard a commotion among the wires and a voice that sounded something like a little boy speaking from under a bed cover. It said look out for news from Santa Rosa, and it came about as follows: Major Clark has quit swearing, taken out a license to preach, and will in a few days be married to one of the belles of Santa Rosa (We wanted to congratulate the Major, but the news kept coming.) Mr. Bridge Williams has become a ranting Democrat, and is giving Col. Byington and his former Republican friends particular thunder for their obstinacy in trying to bolster up a broken down party. (We thought, can dose dings be drue? [sic] But on the news came.)…

… Here Mr. Bayly chipped in, and asked us if we were asleep. We said, no but were receiving some wonderful news from Santa Rosa by the telephone. “Telemischief,” said he; “that is our waste box and we get no reliable news from that. Come this way, sir, and I will show you the America speaking telephone.” We found it to be a little oblong box about six inches in length by four in width and over an inch in thickness. This box having been connected with the wire the fun commenced. We were told to talk, and listen at the little bung hole at the side, in which was the vibrator. We confess to a little trepidation as we put the mysterious little box up to our ear, well remembering the the many times we had been deceived by finding in nice boxes ugly jumping jacks, and not forgetting how that old waste box played us earlier in the evening. However, we listened and heard distinctly what was said by parties in the Santa Rosa office. The music of the flute and the flute and piano together was beautiful, and sounded as though it was but a short distance away…

– Petaluma Courier, May 9 1878


The Telephone Wonder.

We are indebted to Mr. P. Drake, manager of the telegraph offices in San Francisco, and to Mr. Doychert, of the telegraph office in this city, for the courtesies extended which enabled us to be present and enjoy the pleasure of an exchange of social courtesies with parties in Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, by means of one of those most wonderful human inventions, the telephone. To what extent are we being carried by this power of mind over matter? From the time that Franklin flrst bottled the lightnings from the clouds, what wonderful, awe-inspiring inventions have been brought forth to reduce the lightnings to subjection and render them subservient to the will of man. Morse came with his telegraph, and improvement after improvement followed, until now it spans a continent with its wires, and enables us to annihilate time itself in the transmission of news along its wires through the unfathomed waters of the mighty deep from the eastern to the western, and from the western to the eastern shores of a great ocean. And now comes yet another wonder in the telephone, by which we are enabled to converse, not in character, or simply by sound, but by words actually spoken, which fall upon the ear with a distinctness that satisfies the doubts of the most skeptical.

Mr. Drake brought telephonic instruments to our city with him on Saturday evening, 4th inst., and a trial of their powers was made between the railroad depot and the telegraph office in this city, a distance of about a half mile, with but imperfect success. But Sunday evening communication was opened with Petaluma, sixteen miles distant, with the most perfect success. Conversations and music on flute and piano were distinctly heard at either end, and duly applauded by the clapping of hands, which was listened to with delight on the part of those present. The Mocking Bird, played upon the flute by Mr. Felix Brown, of Santa Rosa, was distinctly heard, recognized and encored by those listening in Petaluma; and the playing of a flute and singing and whistling in Petaluma were distinctly heard and applauded in Santa Rosa. Mr. A. E. Shattuck on the piano, accompanied by Mr. Brown, on the flute, were distinctly heard in Petaluma, and requested to repeat time and time again. In order to test more fully the powers of the wonderful instrument, we were told to read a piece of poetry. In compliance we recited a few lines from that beautiful and affecting poem, “Mary had a Little Lamb,” etc., with a concluding, “How is that for high?” and were gracefully complimented with the response coming back distinctly, “Way up!” These tests were continued for full two hours, when good nights were spoken, and the wonderful machine was disconnected from the wires and all parties retired for the night. We hope in the near future to be able to be present at a test between San Francisco and Santa Rosa. If this wonderful machine will transmit words distinctly sixteen miles, why not at a distance of fifty miles; and if at a distance of fifty miles, why may we not annihilate space and have a direct talk with the Emperor of China relative to the speedy removal of his Celestial subjects from the confines of the golden State? The rushing, pushing, traveling American, has already a world-wide reputation as a talkist. What will be the result when he enters the field fully equipped with telephone and phonograph? (The fact is, we shall be able to talk the stone Sphinx into a perspiration and make him shake his head in wonderment.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 11 1878

…The telephone of which I spoke in my laat letter is now up, and has been in successful operation during the past week between here and Geyserville. This morning connection was made to Cloverdaie and and as there is a telepone from there to the Geysers, we are in speaking distance of those springs. Every word spoken at Geyserville or Cloverdaie is as distinctly heard in the office here as if the persona were in the same room carrying on a conversation.

– Sonoma Democrat letter from Skaggs Springs, July 19 1879

…Those of your readers who have to cross Russian River by the ferry, near its mouth, will be glad to learn that a very good telephone has been placed there. When they come to the river bank, a call, in a natural tone of voice, is instantly heard in and answered from the hotel opposite. Just how much unnecessary yelling—and swearing, too—this arrangement saves, will be known and appreciated by persons living up the coast.

– Sonoma Democrat  letter from Russian River Ferry, April 24 1880

Van Alstine & Swanton, who have put up several of Parshley telephone lines in Petaluma, came up Friday, to put up a line to connect Ludwig’s business office with his lumber yard, but had to postpone the matter in consequence of bad weather. They will return as soon as it clears up, when an opportunity will be given all who wish, to avail themselves of this great convenience.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 1 1883

Hello! San Francisco. — Mr. T. J. Gallagher, agent for the Sunset Telephone Company is in this city for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of establishing telephonic communication under the auspices of the company he represents. This company has just completed a circuit which includes Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, Vallejo, and all the adjacent town and villages with the metropolis, and they expect to connect Santa Rosa, with the same general system. Mr. Gallagher has met with great encouragement in Petaluma, and does not doubt that he will secure the requisite number of subscribers here to justify the company in establishing itself here. There is no doubt that the presence of a system of telephones, both here and in connection with San Francisco, would be a great convenience.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 22 1884

The sum of $400 has been raised to construct the telephone line between this city and Sebastopol. The estimated cost is $600.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 22 1884

The Telephone. — The right of way has been secured for the telephone line between here and San Francisco, and the wire will be placed between here and Petaluma in the course of a few weeks. The cable to extend from San Francisco to Point Tiburon is being manufactured. It is expected that by the time the cable is completed, the wire will be up from here to Point Tiburon, and it will only be a month or two until residents here can “hello” to friends and acquaintances in San Francisco or Petaluma.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 26 1884

Messrs. Lawrence and Delaney, of the Telephone Company, are in town, and report that companies of men are at work in three places on the line–one between this city and Petaluma, another between San Rafael and Petaluma, and the third between San Rafael and Point Tiburon. The line between here and Petaluma will be in working order in two weeks. When the line is completed, the cable will be ready and laid, from Point Tiburon to San Francisco. It will contain seven wires, and will be similar in all respects to the one which now connects San Francisco with Oakland.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1884

Hello, Petaluma! The wires for the telephone are being attached to the poles, which are all in position, and it is thought that we can talk with our neighbors this week.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 28 1884

A telephone message to the Democrat, dated Sacramento, January 20th, says: The Republican caucus met to-night and nominated Governor Stanford for United States Senator on the second ballot.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 24 1885
Any One Capable of Manipulating a Typewriter May Easily Transmit and Receive Messages Over a Telegraph Wire—Details. [New York World.]

A new application of electric science has been made here that promises to go far toward revolutionizing telegraphy and supplanting the telephone in popular favor. It is nothing less than the discovery of means by which anybody capable of manipulating an ordinary type-writing machine may, with equal ease, rapidity, and precision, send and receive messages over a telegraphic wire. Should this invention do all that is claimed for it, and, indeed, that it seems fully capable of, there seems to be no good reason why the places of expert Morse telegraphers may not be filled everywhere by girls, clerks, expressmen, station agents and other non-experts, so at once reducing greatly to the public the cost of telegraphy and increasing facilities by the establishment of at least 40,000 new telegraph offices throughout the country in places where they have not heretofore been. For reasons best known to the company controlling this most important invention its operations have until now been kept a secret. The office and operating rooms, have been carefully guarded against reporters and the men interested have been as closemouthed as if it had been a political mystery instead of a step in progressive science that they were concealing. However, the writer found means to be present at a series of exceedingly interesting tests of the practicability of the new system, which constituted an entirely private exhibition.

The distinguishing features of the new system, are the entirely novel transmitter and receiver employed. Those two instruments although put near together here upon a table, have between them about a hundred miles of ordinary telegraph wire coiled about the room, through which their connection is made. In point of fact the transmitter and the receiver are exactly alike, the same machine serving for either use as required. Its front is almost the same as the keyboard of a caligraph or typewriter, the letters of the alphabet and the numerals are in high relief. Behind this is a vertical column, around which blank paper is placed and by a simple mechanical device moved up line by line as desired. The paper almost touches the lettered face of the wheel. A small inking roller governed by a spring supplies color to the lettered wheel. Inside the column is a small hammer that strikes the paper against whatever letter may be directly before it and so prints it upon the surface of the paper. All that seems simple enough.

The mystery is below, in the intricate and delicate electrical attachments which variously graduated currents are led over the thirty-eight or forty wires from the keys to the printing apparatus, and at the same time to a connected instrument far away to record both simultaneously and with perfect accuracy on every key that is struck. The wire connecting the instrument is single, but those graduated currents not only pass along it without confusion, but even meet in opposite directions at the same time. This was fully demonstrated in the tests. The touching of a key instantly produced a letter upon the paper of both instruments, and letter after letter followed as rapidly as a skillful type-writer operator could touch the keys until many messages had been exchanged. It was observed that the wheels, when retrogression in the order of the alphabet was necessitated, whirled clear back to a fixed point each time, as the wheel of a “gold and stock indicator” instrument does, but it moved with much greater rapidity and so little affected transmission that forty to fifty words per minute were easily sent by a person who was not at all an expert, and received automatically at the other end of the line without errors.

One of the gentlemen connected with the new enterprise–one, by the way, of high standing as a practical electrician–said concerning the novel invention: “The distinctive advantages claimed by this system overall other telegraphic, telephonic and typewriting instruments are in its simple and inexpensive construction and the ease of operating it. Any person who can read can transmit and receive messages through it as correctly as could the most experienced expert Morse instrument. It is as rapid as it is accurate, and all messages by it being automatically printed, both at the point of transmission and that of reception, they can be received with safety and reliability in the absence as well as to the presence of the recipient. The recording of messages at both points precludes all questions of errors in transmission. It cannot be read by sound, and is consequently the only method for preserving privacy in electrical communication. It is at once a stock indicator, telephone, and type-printing telegraph. For railroad and express companies, bankers, brokers, marchants, and all commercial purposes—it being adjustable to any system of wire communication and capable of working with any number of tributaries—it is of inestimable value. It is not a verbal telephone, but will supersede that instrument by silently and rapidly recording all messages upon paper. There are no formidable complications in its construction, and it is regarded by expert electricians as a wonderful achievement.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 6 1885
New Telephone Line.

The work of constructing the telephone lines between this city and Sonoma via Glen Ellen will be begin in about thirty days. The enterprise was subscribed to liberally by the citizens of Sonoma and Glen Ellen.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 24 1886


Hello, Eureka!

The Sunset Telephone Company is preparing to extend its line clear through from Santa Rosa to Eureka. The poles are heieg rapidly gotten out and the line will Iw* speedily completed. The connection with Eureka will greatly enlarge the telephone business at the Santa Rosa exchange, The Eureka station has 400 subscribers and all their San Francisco business will have to be handled through the Santa Rosa station, which manages all the territory north of Petaluma.

– Press Democrat,  April 23 1898


The New Telephone Directory

Telephone subscribers will today receive a new directory card and will find It very useful. The new directory gives the names and “numbers” of every subscriber, together with the names of the agents and’ the public stations in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. During the past year communication by telephone has been greatly increased in both counties, until now almost every place in both counties, in town and hamlet, or neither, there is a telephone station. The efficient manager of this district is J. J. Barricklo of this city. The past year has been a very busy one for him.

– Press Democrat, December 29 1900

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