1894 High Tech: Speaking Tubes
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.]
I owned 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!!!!!!!
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.
Yep, all very high-tech in an 1894-ish kinda way.
All very very cool, too.
Another blogger did a nice post here.
12/14: I now have THREE mouthpieces!!!! One more to go!
ABOUT AUNT MABEL
I just learned all this. And am amazed.
Wow! I am simply stunned!
Aunt Mabel was married? And to a captain?
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.
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