The Telephone Comes To Greenwich

Originally written by Carl White.

From the late 1800s until the advent of the personal computer, the telephone was considered the most important tool for business and social interaction. It was instrumental in the growth of our great corporations. Yet, at first, it was considered a “toy” with no commercial value!  History would prove this to be further from the truth. The telephone was introduced at the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia in 1876 by inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Unfortunately, there was very little interest. In 1878, Bell enthusiastically promoted the phone at the American Institute Fair in New York City. Two people could talk to each other at opposite ends of a hall for 10 cents. This attracted little attention. Later that year, Bell spoke at Chickering Hall in New York, and, after some difficulty, was able to arrange a call from New Brunswick NJ to New York City. This caught everyone’s attention. Bell’s phone was on its way!

The Telephone Catches On

At first, private citizens and businesses leased telephones in pairs. Businessmen could keep in touch with their offices. Then, the first commercial telephone operation was established in 1878 in New Haven. It was called the District Telephone Company of New Haven. In 1881, Western Union and the phone company merged. This was a prudent move since Western Union already had wires in place. The next year (1882), the company’s name was changed to Southern New England Telephone – SNET.

It’s also interesting to note that the New Haven Company was the first to introduce the phone directory.

Boswell Provides Telephone Service

In 1880, Mr. J. K. Butler of the telephone company in Stamford appointed Henry C. Boswell – the owner of Boswell’s Drug Store – to be a local manager to oversee telephone operations in Greenwich. A small switchboard was installed in the drugstore’s backroom. The first subscriber was E.A. Soper, proprietor of the Lenox House. Soper would give a nightly demonstration in the hotel’s front room. Guests thought they had to yell into the phone since Stamford was approximately 5 miles away! The earpiece was used to hear and transmit voice. After listening, the people would speak into the earpiece.

Telephone Service Details

Once people realized the telephone could save time, money, and travel, it caught on very quickly. Telephone lines began springing up all over.  By 1882, Greenwich residents could speak to acquaintances in New York and Stamford. Service to Stamford and Hartford started in 1883, and local people could call Round Hill and Stanwich by 1884. This was also the year they added night service.

The cost of the phone service was 11 cents per day! Service was provided from 8 am to 8 pm. At first, there was no service at night, on Sundays, or on holidays. When the number of subscribers reached 40, the hours at night were extended to 10 pm. Richard Bogue from Port Chester took over the managerial duties and moved the operation to an upstairs front room in the Hubbard Building. Miss Mary A. Charles was employed as the operator. Mr. Butler, who was now the Southern New England Telephone (SNET) manager, had his son, Frank, appointed the night operator. He held this position for 16 years. A rear hall room was converted into a bedroom for Frank. Since Frank was a very sound sleeper, he often slept through the alarm and failed to start on time. Miss Charles’s 14-year-old niece, Alice Gronan, started helping out as an operator and increased the number of subscribers to 60.

At first, people used names instead of numbers to make calls. A pen and ink chart with the names of subscribers with numbers hung in the central office. There were no desk telephones. All phones were fastened to the wall. People had to stand to make their calls. Furthermore, the current telephone book provided by the telephone company was bulky and unwieldy. It covered a large area and proved difficult to read. In 1929, Charles Morton of New Canaan created his own compilation. It was only 80 pages long with 63 advertisements. The type was good – legible, clear, and distinct. It could be very easily carried in one’s front pocket. Unfortunately, Mr. Morton had to discontinue his phone book due to copyright infringement.

New York Telephone Company

In June 1958, New York Telephone opened up its new 300,000-square-foot office on Sherwood Place. New York Telephone served Greenwich from the Port Chester line to the Mianus River. Everyone living east of the river was a Southern New England telephone customer. This created some confusion since some people didn’t know which company to call for service!

As the business began to grow, so did its problems. The company was hit by worker strikes in 1947, 1956, 1968, 1971, 1975, and 1980.

In 1974, an anti-trust suit was filed, claiming the Bell Telephone Company was a monopoly. The case was finally settled on January 8, 1982, when the company was broken up into “Baby Bells.” AT&T retained Western Electric, the Yellow Pages, the Bell trademark, Bell Labs, and the long-distance business.

With the advent of the cell phone in the 1990s, there were fewer landlines and less demand for phone books. Instead of 1 phone per house, each person can have his/her own phone. Imagine how much this increased revenue! It also increased convenience. People can take their phones anywhere and make calls anytime they want. “Smartphones” also provide access to the Internet and many other services.

There have been several mergers over time, and there’s no reason to believe there won’t be more in the future. In 1998, SNET was purchased by SBC Communications for $44 billion. Technology will no doubt continue to change, and what we have today may be very different from what we have in the future. Voice recognition may replace keypad entry.


Greenwich Observer, Mead, J.  Editor;  Greenwich CT:  1877-1882

Hubbard, F.; Greenwich History: The Judge’s Corner;  Round Hill Productions, Greenwich CT 06831, 2001.


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