Evolution of the “horn” and phone calls in Hendersonville


The smartphone has mainly replaced a device once known as a “horn”, “shout box”, “blower” or “heater” and sometimes the vintage device “went off the hook.”

The first words were transmitted by telephone in 1875; the first full sentence in 1876. The Bell Telephone Company was incorporated in 1877 and incorporated in 1878 in Massachusetts.

Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company initially incorporated in 1879 in New York (and reincorporated in Georgia in 1983 as SBT & T Co.). American Bell was founded in 1880. In 1885, the Bell Telephone Company formed the American Telephone & Telegraph Company subsidiary as a long-distance division of Bell.

In 1899 the name of the conglomerate would change to the holding company American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), and Hendersonville was boasting of its first telephones. Southern Bell was renamed BellSouth until its merger with AT&T in 2006.

The rotary telephone became available in 1904 and was patented in 1913. Until then, a telephone was anything but portable. It consisted of a wooden box attached to a wall, powered by two dry cells, and had two bells, a crank, and a mouthpiece separate from the “horn” or earpiece that hung from a hook when it was not. was not used.

Thread talks

A late 1890s candlestick telephone. This desktop model remained popular between the 1890s and 1940s.

The marvel of telephony arrived in North Carolina in 1879, with the first long distance call made from Raleigh to Wilmington on April 14. The number of telephone subscribers went from a few to hundreds and then to thousands. This meant complex training and work for telephone operators.

Hendersonville’s first central office occupied the Cole Bank / Rose Pharmacy Building floor at Main Street and Fourth Avenue West, then moved to the Toms Building neighborhoods at Main and Third Avenue East, then upstairs in the State Trust Building before moving in 1950 to Church Street and Second Avenue West.

From switchboards to dial-up access

Manual switchboards required operators to connect calls, connecting circuits by inserting a pair of flexible telephone plugs (circuits) into the appropriate socket (jack). Each socket had a lamp (signal). The signal flashed when a subscriber picked up his telephone handset.

Typically, the operator, wearing a helmet and mouthpiece, participated in the call. Besides this involvement, party lines have also invaded privacy.

Hendersonville telephone exchange, 1930. In the photo, from left to right: Emma Garren, Naomi Pace Harris, Nila Candler-Osborne and an unidentified woman.

Jonathan Case (1869-1942) owned Dana’s first phone line in Hendersonville. The earliest Main Street telephones included those at the Justus Pharmacy and the first location of the MM Shepherd store. To reach the Justus pharmacy by telephone, you should ask for “16”. The number was later changed to 177.

Frank L. FitzSimons Sr. wrote a local 1908 telephone directory with 26 pages and 291 listings. It would have predated Miller’s hardback directories, but post-dated Branson North Carolina business directories in the mid to late 1800s.

Mailing addresses were rarely used and phone numbers were under four digits long. The numbers increased as phone subscriptions increased.

Virginia Laughter Hamilton (1926-2018), graduated from Flat Rock High School in 1945 and worked as a telephone operator before attending cosmetology school.  She then worked as a hairdresser.  In the photo, Virginia is enjoying a break from her work at Southern Bell with her future husband Thomas Arthur Hamilton.

In the early days of telephony in Hendersonville, AC Morris, a grocer, had “1” as a number; First National Bank, 5; Thos. Shepherd, 25 (when the funeral home was on North Main Street); Café central, 44; Citizens’ Bank, 45; Bank Wanteska, 58; Sheriff’s Office, 71; Ewbank & Ewbank (real estate and insurance), 89; and Erle G. Stillwell (architect), 212.

The Asheville Telephone & Telegraph Co. owned the local telephone system at the time.

The French Broad Hustler, a local newspaper, printed July 6, 1911: “The rapid growth of Hendersonville necessarily increases the number of telephones and in view of this the telephone company is now installing a new switchboard section, which be completed by[in] the next five days.

On May 29, 1913, the Hustler declared: “A bill introduced by Senator QK Nimocks and enacted into law imposes a fine of $ 20 on anyone who uses obscene or profane words, or vulgar words or a indecent language, to any female telephone operator operating any switchboard, circuit or telephone line.

In 1960 in Hendersonville, the prefix “OX” was added before four digits, or, in some cases, before five digits (OX-5-1263). The shift to dialing all numbers was gradual, starting in 1958 and continuing into the 1970s.

In many parts of the country, especially in large metropolitan areas, phone numbers became standardized to seven digits (letters and digits) in 1931. Some cities used two-letter / four-digit dialing before that, and some had three letters / four digits. -numbering. A standard two letter / five digit numbering system was phased in in the 1930s.

The first three digits corresponded to a particular telephone service provider, and the last four remained as a personal calling code. During the 1950s, cities using six-digit numbers converted to seven-digit numbering.

The area code system was developed by AT&T and Bell Laboratories in the 1940s and came into effect in 1947. Called the North American Numbering Plan (NANP), it included the United States and Canada.

But where are the date records, employee lists and the number of subscriptions from the early years of Hendersonville telephony? FitzSimons wrote that they were nowhere to be found.

Keep history alive

“If only I had recorded the memories of my great-grandfather. “If my aunt was alive she could answer that question.” “I wish I had taken some notes when Grandma was still with us.”

Countless times I hear similar laments when I ask the natives about family histories. Completely frustrated at times, I went so far as to ask my fellow historians (jokingly) if we should have a session every time we hit a brick wall. Or, in a whimsical way, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could phone someone who died in the Inquiry Age, and ask?”

In the last years of Louise Bailey’s long life, rarely a day went by that I didn’t call her with a question. And every time I called, she would start with the same words, “You know, I prefer personal visits. Come here; I’ll put the kettle on.

Sometimes I called to tell him about a recent discovery. Pushed for some reason to dig deep into the past – wanting to know what makes or makes every little thing work – I would occasionally stumble upon historical data excluded from one of the available books.

“Oh, I could have told you,” Louise said. “Well, then why don’t you?” I would fly. “Because you didn’t ask,” she replied with a chuckle.

How I would like her to be with us again. I miss his dry humor and the camaraderie we shared. As I wish I could call it today.

Club “Number, please”

Local women who worked as telephone operators for Southern Bell before dial-up access replaced central switchboards began meeting for lunches in the early 1980s, a tradition that continued until 2016, with only two members present that year. Several had died, some had moved to other states, and a few were in poor health.

Pictured at a 'Number, Please' luncheon at Bay Breeze Restaurant in 2013, from front left: Bertha Hoots Stepp, Virginia Laughter Hamilton, Sindy Drake Hamilton;  and from front right: Jewell Simpson Waters, Ruth McCrary Campfield, Mildred Chapman.
With her winning personality, Sarah Lucille

The most recent club directory listed the following members: Jo Edney Arrowood, Allene Brown, Sue Pace Cable, Thelma Capps Camp, Ruth McCrary Campfield, Allene Henderson Caudle, Mildred Roper Chapman, Jean Lanning Corn, Evelyn Erwin Crawford, June Halford Fleming , Joyce Hingle France, Katherine Justus Goforth, Mildred Justus Guice, Sindy Drake Justus Hamilton, Virginia Laughter Hamilton, Virginia Frazier Hefner, Margaret Saltz Justus, Adelia Creasman Maxwell, Mary Cline Melvin, Sarah Cox Merrell, Sara Duncan Mitchell, Sarah Jones Moore, Georgia Staton Orr Pace, Louise Floyd Pace, Bea Hunnicutt Patterson, Willie Williams Perry, Hazel McKinney Reese, Bertha Hoots Stepp, Betty Saunders Stepp, Mary Jane Coston Steppe, Jo Lunsford Taylor, Ruth Waters Thomas, Jewell Simpson Waters and Margaret Brown White.

Jewell Simpson Waters (1925-2014), graduated from Etowah High School in 1943, worked for Southern Bell for 37 years.  She was a member and later president of the Pioneers, a sisterhood of Southern Bell employees with 20 or more years of experience with the company.

Terry Ruscin is the author of several books on local and regional history, including “Hidden History of Henderson County”.

Terry ruscin


The monthly column “Beyond the Banks” would not be possible without the support of many members of the Henderson County community. In this month’s column:

  • The 1930 photo of the Henderson telephone exchange courtesy of the Baker-Barber Collection; Henderson County Community Foundation and Henderson County Public Library.
  • The late 1890s candlestick telephone was provided by Krista Phillips. Photo by Terry Ruscin.
  • The circa 1915 wall phone housed in a wooden box was provided by Hulon McCraw. Photo by Terry Ruscin.
  • The author wishes to express his thanks to Gayle Hamilton Stepp who provided the other photographs that accompany this story, as well as to others who contributed to this article.

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