Portland’s Phone Network, Circa 1911

In the midst of the communication technology that has come to define our busy lives—mobile everything and 24/7 communication—we thought a little historical context might be of interest. During a recent session with The Oregonian microfilm, we came across this little nugget from January 11, 1911.


From The Oregonian, January 11, 1911.

Just wanted to make sure you caught that: the Home Telephone & Telegraph Company, working at a very busy pace, installed 2,460 phones in calendar year 1910, bringing the total number of working phones in Portland to 12,254. Just for interest sake, Portland’s total population in 1911 was 212,290. Between 1910-1911, more than 13,000 building permits were issued in Portland, a record that made the City Building Department (formerly located in City Hall) a very busy place. Construction in Portland, and in our brand new neighborhoods here in the Northeast quarter of the city, was taking place at a pace which we can hardly imagine today.

In our 1912 bungalow, the first phone was hidden away in a box tucked into the wainscot in the breakfast nook. A later version had its very own table mounted to the wall in the hallway outside the master bedroom. Not sure when the “twisted pair” arrived here, but our hunch–based on what was a growing trend both in homebuilding and telephone business–is that we were wired from the beginning. What’s the history of the phone in your house?

At a time when we take wi-max, wi-fi, cell phones and the internet for granted, the notion of 12,254 working phones in Portland makes us want to slow down a bit, and wonder if people were actually better connected then.

5 responses

  1. Great find(and great blog!).

    Just a small point of clarification – it’s possible/likely that there were two competing (and possibly non-interconnected!) landline companies in operating in Portland in 1910, so it may be that the numbers for the Home Telephone Company don’t represent the total number of phones in Portland at the time.

    I just spent a few minutes Googling and couldn’t come up with any hard info for Portland, but I see that some other cities had two competing carriers well into the teens.

    • Hi Tad. Thanks for visiting the blog. There was indeed another company (and other phones) in Portland at the time: the Home Telephone Co. figures represent a single snapshot and not the comprehensive picture of Portland telecommunications in 1911, but still an interesting order of magnitude. Home Telephone was owned by Henry L. Corbett, who was involved in everything from banking and investments, to railroads, to statewide politics as a member of the Oregon State Senate. Corbett’s competition (and the source of those other phones in Portland at the time) was the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co., owned by John C. Ainsworth, another Portland business giant. I am confident the numbers for PST&T may have been comparable with Home Telegraph, but I just haven’t come across them in the microfilm (yet). When I do, I’ll post it here.


  2. Recently I visited Pittock Mansion, and in the office, there are two phones provided by different competing phone companies. One was connected to Home Telephone and Telegraph Company network and another one to Pacific Telephone & Telegraph. The Home Telephone one used rotary dial, while the Pacific used a phone operator and a switchboard to complete connection. Also there is a note saying that these two phone networks were not interconnect, and that the reason for having both phones in the office.


    • Thank you, Sergey. Interesting observation. Pittock would have had the latest technology at the time, which apparently involved being able to access both telephone networks.

  3. I order to access both phone networks one would have needed a phone and service from EACH in a single residence. Interconnection was not mandated by the states until around 1918 in areas that had competing telephone companies. Around 1912-14 the Bell companies went on atear to buy up competitors and consoldate the industry.

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