Speaking. Again.

Matt has been fabulously restoring his 1889 house, and he blogs about it.

Recently, he partially re-installed his speaking tube system! I was SO happy for Matt! But then I thought: Why aren’t I doing the same?

Indeed. Why not?

The speaking tubes in the Cross House are mostly intact. One goes from the first-floor kitchen to the second-floor sewing room. And one goes from the sewing room to the third-floor “plaster” room. The latter room was, I think, either the housekeeper’s room, or a servant’s hall.

When I purchased the house all the mouthpieces were missing. But I eventually acquired three on eBay, and my friend Harold stunned me by gifting the house with one he had squirreled away. And the four mouthpieces have sat in drawer all this time.

But, inspired by Matt, I decided to have some fun today.


In the plaster room, the mouthpiece just slipped right on. FABULOUS!


In the sewing room the two tubes had been plastered over. In 2014, I removed the wallpaper which totally covered this historic treasure.


Today, I carefully drilled out the plaster and discovered that the tubes had been crimped nearly closed. Oh, the poor dears.


After uncrimping the upper tube, I discovered that it had been stuffed some material to, I guess, soundproof the pipe. Fascinating.


Both tubes uncrimped and cleaned out.


Mouthpiece to plaster room installed!!!!!!!!


When you push the lever, the privacy cover plate opens. The very acme of 1894 technology!


Tragically, I was alone in the house today so could not test the system.

I will soon add the lower mouthpiece to the sewing room!

Thanks, Matt!




  1. Blair Carmichael on March 14, 2018 at 7:33 pm

    I have one in my upstairs master bedroom closet, but where the other end appears is lost to time.

    • Ross on March 14, 2018 at 8:31 pm

      A mystery which would drive me to distraction!

    • Diana on March 15, 2018 at 11:49 pm

      Maybe you could use a metal detector to follow the tube.

      • Ragnar on March 16, 2018 at 6:55 am

        I’d try to push something semi-rigid, like electrician’s fish tape, into the pipe and wiggle it around while someone walks around the house listening. That should give you a decent guess where the pipe goes.

        • Blair on March 16, 2018 at 7:25 am

          I pull cable a lot in my job, and fish tape or a mini camera would not be able to pass the right angles. I was able to blow hard into the tube and by closing the flap quickly I was able to get the whistle to whistle back at me which tells me that the end is sealed somewhere in the wall. I also found some tube coming from the front door in the basement. But no sign of it outside or anywhere else.

  2. Sandra Lee on March 14, 2018 at 8:22 pm

    Genius Ross & genius Matt–ACMEs of 19th C tech!!!

  3. john feuchtenberger on March 14, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    And what will your first test words be? “Come here, Mr. Justin, I want you?”

    • Ross on March 14, 2018 at 8:31 pm

      What else?

    • Seth Hoffman on March 14, 2018 at 11:52 pm

      Haha, genius!

  4. Seth Hoffman on March 14, 2018 at 11:51 pm


  5. Kelly P. on March 15, 2018 at 10:10 am

    I really like the simple ways that were used for practical things, like your speaking tubes. My 1894 Queen Ann in San Francisco had a lever at the top of stairs in the upstairs unit . It did not work when we moved in. Looking closely I found that the base trim was screwed on at the bottom of the stairs. I removed the trim and threshold and reconnected the rods and levers. Went back to the top pulled the lever , the lock was kicked in the door swung open,then pushed the lever and the door closed. What a thrill. I was very impressed with it’s practical simplicity.

    • Stewart McLean on March 15, 2018 at 11:03 am

      Hi Kelly P.,

      It sounds neat. I’d love to hear more details of this contraption. I am not clear on why it was needed.

      From your comment, I think that you are saying that pulling on a lever caused the catch piece to a door’s latch to be pushed and the door would swing open.

      I would love to know where the door is in relation to the lever. Was this original to the house? Is the lever one which swung up to the wall usually and one would pull it down to open the door. Do you have any pictures? Please reply.

  6. Kim on March 15, 2018 at 10:38 am

    I like this technology – very low-key but deliberate. It’s not sneaky as if to spy rather, it’s practical.

    I wonder if the third floor “plaster” room wasn’t the play room or “nursery”. In many large houses there is often a large, out-of-the-way room for the children to run around in when the weather just isn’t cooperative.

    Certainly, communication between the kitchen to lady of the house was a priority. I also think this lady would be keeping an ear out for the children wreaking havoc in the play room above.

    Just wondering – the imagination has lots of room to run in this house. 😉

  7. Stewart McLean on March 15, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Speaking tubes are a fascinating subject.

    Isn’t it great that the tubes were crimped rather than cut off. What a pain it would have been to have to add (non-original) extensions to the tubes before installing the mouthpieces. It looks great! I look forward to the reports on their use.

    I suspect that Mrs Cross would be very cross indeed if the servants didn’t keep the mouthpieces brightly polished at all times. I don’t know if they knew to polish and lacquer them so they would stay bright for years in the 1890’s.

    I wonder if the tubes need to be metal to carry the sound. I don’t suppose that PVC would carry sound as well, but don’t really know.

    I realize that the privacy cover plates keeps the sounds of voices in the room from being heard at the other end. (Who wants their servants to be listening in to conversations or knowing that one talks to oneself when no one is around? Heaven forbid!) Since there is a small hole in the privacy cover plate I would be interested in knowing if sound is projected into the room better through the small hole than if the cover plate is held open, or if it is only there so that one can hear a muffled sound to know that someone is trying to reach them from the other end.

    Are these tubes straight shots with no bends except where they turn to emerge at the mouthpieces, or are they untamed snakes?

    What is the height at which the mouthpieces are set? Mrs Cross wouldn’t want to stoop to speak into it, although it wouldn’t be so bad for Mr Cross if he was taller, since the lady of the house generally directed the servants. I can just imagine Mrs Cross standing there being measured by the installer,(plumber?). Maybe they asked her to kiss the wall on the spot that she wanted it to be placed. “Mrs. Cross, would you please apply this “Jungle Red” lipstick and kiss the wall at the most comfortable spot for you?” Isn’t it a shame that they didn’t have digital cameras to record every detail of how these things were decided. Perhaps one could determine her height from the mouthpiece’s height. Maybe there was a separate height that was the standard for the mouthpieces in the servant’s rooms.

    It would be interesting to me if you compared heights of speaking tubes with Matt and others who still have them in place to see if there might have been a universal standard for their height, if the heights differed with the rooms in which they were placed, or if it was set by the height of the lady of the house’s mouth from the floor.

    Really fun post, Ross. Thanks for brightening my day.

  8. Sharon on March 15, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    Why two tubes? I understand that the upper tube is for speaking, but what is the bottom tube for? Images I’ve seen on-line show just the mouth-piece extension. Or are there two tubes for two different destinations? This is fascinating stuff!

    • Ross on March 15, 2018 at 12:29 pm

      The bottom tube goes to the kitchen.

  9. Jennifer on March 15, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Having finally washed up on higher ground after Hurricane Harvey drowned my home of 25 years, I spent the past many days binge reading to catch up on Cross House progress. What joy! What bliss! Oh happy day! It’s dreadful to be caught up and find my gluttony at an end,for I must return to the horror of furnishing and decorating this new pile. Unlike you, I have zero decorating skills. I sweat over rugs and positively weep over window treatments. So far, most everything my infertile brain has coughed up has ended up on the heap of Bad Ideas. I may be finished long after you’re done with Cross House. Thank you and Cross House for brightening my life and giving me something to look forward to nearly every day!

    • Ross on March 15, 2018 at 12:54 pm

      Hi, Jennifer!

      It is very nice to meet you!

      And I well appreciate bad ideas. I have had more than a few myself.

  10. Sharon on March 15, 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Theory. The debris in the sewing room tube was placed there by the servant herself after years of taking orders; then she could claim something was wrong with the device–therefore, less communication meant less work to do. “If that woman interrupts my sewing one more time……..!!!!” LOL

    • Ross on March 15, 2018 at 12:55 pm

      A most excellent theory, Sharon!

  11. Bethany Otto on March 15, 2018 at 1:01 pm

    Your speaking tubes make me think of a children’s book that features an old house that has speaking tubes. The book is Katie John by Mary Calhoun. Katie and her family move into an old house full of exciting surprises including speaking tubes that allow for great eavesdropping and also ghostly pranks 🙂 One of my favorites growing up and it contributed greatly, alone with Harriet the Spy, to my desire to have an old house with speaking tubes and a dumbwaiter, among other delights.

  12. Ashley on March 15, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    Oh this is so exciting! As a new reader to your blog, I went from start to finish in 3 days – feverishly reading post after post late into the night and took a great deal of sneaky delight pretending to have a “work” crisis that kept me at my desk rather than in meetings 🙂

    Since I have only been recently introduced to the Cross House, I’m ashamed to admit how anxious I was to have the mouthpieces, once found, attached and now I don’t have to practise patience! I’m ridiculously excited and feel strangely rewarded for my frenzied read the last few days!

    • Ross on March 15, 2018 at 9:19 pm

      What a delight meeting you, Ashley!

  13. Kelly P. on March 16, 2018 at 10:01 am

    Stewart, The lever is at the top of the stairs, the door is the entrance door at the bottom. It was used so you didn’t have to go to the bottom. I have no pictures. If you google 809 811 Pierce St. San Francisco you can see the house. The upstairs unit is where we lived. The lower unit is mostly intact and original. Beware, evil flippers have destroyed the main floor of the upstairs unit. I nearly cried when I saw it.

  14. Greg on March 16, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    The little holes in the privacy cover usually made a whistle – you’d whistle through the hole to get attention of someone at the other end, then both sides open the covers and speak. 😀 Keep up the great blog!

  15. Matt on March 22, 2018 at 9:49 am

    Ross have I mentioned how much I adore you? Your humor make me smile and your dedication to the Cross house is admirable. I was so happy to get my tubes back in working order and so happy that you got some of yours in also. I’m also a little jealous because I see one of yours has the ultra rare little indicator flap which I tried to find one for some time, but to no avail. In the end I am happy to have mouthpieces in any case as you know how hard they are to find. I also imagine we competed once or twice to purchase some. In the end we and our old houses win. Bravo on adding another layer of jewelry back onto your house.

  16. Blair Carmichael on March 22, 2018 at 10:06 am

    Hello Matt,

    Do you mean the flap that acts as a whistle when closed?

    It also prevents people from listening on the other end.

    • Matt on March 27, 2018 at 2:25 pm

      There is a little flap I the side of the mouthpiece that when air is blown through and it whistles the flap goes up to indicate that a particular mouthpiece was sounded. I’m guessing it was helpful with several mouthpieces on the same wall to know which ones to talk into.

  17. ArtistSusan on January 2, 2020 at 2:37 am

    Glad to see these go in! I wondered what happened with them. Now you just need two more.

  18. Michael Brannin on June 5, 2021 at 8:49 am

    We just found speaking tubes in our house when we renovated our kitchen. The mouthpieces are long gone and the tube from the kitchen goes up to the attic then went down to the 2nd floor, either the owner’s bedroom or hallway (not sure as we have not found the outlet yet). The tube in the attic is ‘flattened’ and was cut as a large air handler was installed in its path, but we can see the remainder of the pipe where it went down to the 2nd floor. With more investigation we are thinking of hooking it up again. I found an old turned wood British mouthpiece with whistle, but would like to find the style in this blog as our home was built in 1912. This could actually be pretty handy when one of us is upstairs and one downstairs. Thanks for sharing this information!

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