The Cross House

1894 High Tech: Speaking Tubes

THE PAST

When I was a wee one in the 1960s, my parents would take us kids (there were four) to visit Aunt Mabel, who was sweet, generous with a kind word, never lectured, and always gave each of us kids a whole dollar (back when a dollar could actually buy something).

Aunt Mabel was also a mystery, at least to my very young self. She had no husband, and no children, and this seemed terribly odd, indeed.

Another oddity? Well, how was Aunt Mabel related to me? I did not know, but sensed that my siblings and I were her only young relatives. We seemed to delight Mabel to no end, and she would light up in our presence. My dad also adored Mabel, and he often told my mother: “When I was a kid she was my favorite.” My dad’s mother was a hard woman and I suspect that Mabel offered a refuge for my dad when he was growing up.

While we lived in a suburban development just outside Detroit, Aunt Mabel lived in Detroit. And where she lived fascinated me.

Aunt Mabel lived in a duplex: one apartment on the first-floor, and one above. Mabel lived in the one above. When visiting, we would pause before the front door on the covered porch, as my mother offered each of her children their turn at THE thrill: whistling into the speaking tube. Really, this was just the coolest thing ever.

You see, right next to the door was a brass mouthpiece. If one whistled into it, this could be heard upstairs. Like a verbal doorbell. Well, us kids were entirely agog at this wondrous device (remember, this was well before every kid on Earth had a smartphone stuffed into their pocket).

I knew nobody else who had a speaking tube. Nor did I know anybody who lived in an apartment, or in a duplex. Aunt Mabel also had a 1930s cobalt blue velvet sofa with down cushions. Sitting on it was like resting on a cloud (everybody else I knew had rigid foam cushions).

All this made Aunt Mabel thrilling exotic. This, combined with her kindness and joy at our young selves, created an indelible memory which survives many many many decades later, even though Aunt Mabel died when I was eight. [While writing this post, I thought: What was Aunt Mabel’s story? This being the Internet age, I found out a lot, and this information is at the bottom of this post.]

 

THE PRESENT

I owed the Cross House for months before discovering the most exciting, astounding, and seemingly miraculous thing: I had speaking tubes!

After all these decades I was once again agog. The Cross House was laced with speaking tubes!!!!!!!

 

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This speaking tube at the top level, in what would have originally been the servants level. The mouthpiece was lopped off ages ago, but more about that in a moment. The tube goes down to….

 

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…the sewing room on the second floor. This room was the “wife cave”. In the image above, the mouthpieces have, again, been lopped off. There were two. One went UP to the servants floor, and the other went DOWN to the kitchen.

 

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This is the back of the sewing room speaking tubes. You can clearly see how one goes UP and the other goes DOWN. While the tube to the kitchen was removed ages ago, it can be easily recreated. And I so will!

 

Once I realized I had speaking tubes, there was no question that I would have to find the lost mouthpieces so the system could work again. But…mouthpieces have proved elusive, and I need four. Luckily, I am relentless about such vital quests and have now — drum roll, please — scored two mouthpieces. Zounds! At great cost, yes, but I was THRILLED.

 

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Ta-da!!!!!!!!!!!! One of the mouthpieces.

 

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Inside the mouthpiece is a kinda lid. This helps to keep voices in a room from being heard on the other end of a speaking tube. The small hole in the lid was where you whistled. This would alert somebody on the other end. To speak, you would push the small lever (image above), and this would…

 

iy.o.y
…open the lid.

 

Yep, all very high-tech in an 1894-ish kinda way.

All very very cool, too.

Another blogger did a nice post here.

 

UPDATE

12/14: I now have THREE mouthpieces!!!! One more to go!

 

ABOUT AUNT MABEL

I just learned all this. And am amazed.

 

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Aunt Mabel! The man is her husband, one Captain Arther Sturgis.

 

Wow! I am simply stunned!

Aunt Mabel was married? And to a captain?

Wow!

The couple had a child in 1914, who died the same year. Mabel would have been thirty-four.

The captain (born in 1870) died in 1938, two decades before my birth.

Mabel never had another child, nor did she remarry (she was 58 when her husband died). Mabel died in 1965, age 85, when I was eight.

When Mabel died her name was Mabel MacTaggart (her given name), not Mabel Sturgis. This is most curious.

Mabel, as it turns out, was my great-grandfather’s sister. I never knew that.

In the above image, what is Mabel doing? It looks like she is pulling, or tickling, the ear of the Captain! She is clearly enjoying herself, and this is how I remember her. Although the dark-haired woman is actually unrecognizable, as the woman I knew had bright white hair.

A few years before she died, Mabel, who had diabetes, had both legs amputated. My primary memories of visiting Aunt Mabel involved sitting on that incredible cobalt blue velvet sofa, while each one of us kids was slowly led into Mabel’s small bedroom. She would be propped up on huge pillows covered in brilliant white starched pillowcases with delicate embroidered edges, and brilliant white starched sheets pulled up to her waist (Mabel had a live-in housekeeper). She would ask what I was up to, seem incredibly interested in every mumbled expression of mine, and then would say: “Now give your old aunt a hug.” This was not easy with her in bed, and I was uncertain what was wrong with her (this, I learned much later).

As she hugged, she would always make sure that a dollar bill got secreted into my palm. Even then I had the sense that she could ill-afford this small gift.

Learning about Mabel all these many decades later indicates that she did not have an easy life, but I have not a single memory of her ever complaining or seeming unhappy. She exuded life, even when bedridden at the end.

It would be great, today, to have a few long conversations with Mabel. And to give her a hug.

19 Responses to 1894 High Tech: Speaking Tubes

  1. Great story, As for the mouth pieces, you could look into having new ones cast using the old one. I know that there are several companies that do this for switch plates, and doorknobs. So long as the construction is simple this could be much cheaper than buying antique ones

  2. Like you I have the same lopped off speaking tubes. Them being cut made me so angry once I figured out what they were that I almost wished I didn’t have them at all. From what we can tell ours run from the three staircase landings into the dining room and original basement kitchen (presumably, as we didn’t want to demo any more plaster than necessary). We had call bells running into our 1890’s kitchen addition as well – hopefully you find a similar cluster of wires so I can follow your lead in figuring out how to restore them!

  3. I have just discovered the enchanting Cross House today, and your blog along with it. After reading all the entries in one gluttonous orgy of window frames and leaded glass panes, I must now wait for further developments constrained by the passing of time and the drying of paint. Never thought that could be inspirational! Thank you for all the little insider tidbits. Fred Newman made me gasp in horror. The stained glass and emerging staircase make me swoon. Well done! Can’t wait to see what comes next!

  4. I lived in an apartment in Chicago with the speaking tube and whistle. Great invention. The house I live in now has one of the original 1890’s speaking tubes intact. All the others have been removed. I have no idea where they went. Servants? Kitchen? It is in the master bedroom.

    Always love it when someone restores even these details!

  5. I have just discovered your blog today and have enjoyed it immensely! I particularly loved the Aunt Mabel story…your last line is how you’d love to give her a hug….well, in telling her story, I think you did just that! Cheers!

  6. “In the above image, what is Mabel doing? It looks like she is pulling, or tickling, the ear of the Captain!”

    She was trying to get him to smile for the picture!

  7. Ross, I’m currently working my way through the blog, and had missed this story. Your Aunt sounds like a remarkable lady, and by sharing even this small memory, you helped resurrect her for all of us.

    Good luck with those speaking tubes – I’ve never heard of them before. In the UK the first house my parents owned had electronic servants call bells in all the rooms which were still operational and my brother, sister and I had a blast playing with those.

  8. Ross,

    I am a Georgian fan myself, very fond of Greenway, have been following you progress for a while now and rendered almost speechless with admiration. I love working with the metal fittings and fixtures, box locks, keepers, hinges, fanlight pulleys, clasps, screws, nails and such, and filigree, love filigree, the more intricate the better. Brass is one of my favourites to refurbish, that and iron.

    Regarding the speaking tubes, I believe a great many may have been sacrificed to the war effort as most domestic brass did in Britain. Are they similar to the mouthpieces used on ships? With a sea Captain in the family I assume you’ve already searched that route, the railways used them too, railwaymen are great hoarders. Regards-GC

  9. Have only just discovered your blog. What a wonderful story. Very much looking forward to reading every post.

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