The Acoustic Territories of Domestic Telephony


Conceptually, telephones and telephonic infrastructure are commonly positioned under the heading “information and communication technologies” (ICT), grouped broadly with information systems, computer hardware and software, and communication technologies such as email and letters. As a sound technology, however, we might think of the telephone as belonging, rather, to a family of warning systems and alarms. In LaBelle’s Acoustic Territories the telephone is mentioned alongside the doorbell, fire alarm, and alarm clock as a fixture, both physically and within a larger domestic history: 


This audible ringing [of the alarm clock] literally becomes a fixture in domestic life, accentuated further with the introduction of the telephone, whose bell ringing punctuates home life with a commanding signal. The phone calls out to be answered – is someone going to get that?! All such ringing no doubt plays out in the dreamtime of residents who start to imagine ringing in the head, in anticipation of the phone, the alarm clock, or the burglar alarm – was that the doorbell? The ringing bell alarm is thus a device that triggers one’s attention, operating as a sounding fixture incorporated into domestic life and its functioning privacy. (LaBelle 2010: 78)


Placing telephony in the context of sound alarms rather than ICT opens other ways of thinking about the role of the telephone as a technology in the home. Writing about the introduction of new technologies and infrastructures, such as plumbing in urban housing, LaBelle describes noises connected to these changes as “giving way to new forms of connectivity in domestic life” (LaBelle 2010: 52). With the introduction of telephony, the ringing of a telephone bell functioned not only as an alarm calling to be answered but as a reminder that we are socially and technologically connected to a world outside the home. Additionally, the sounds of others engaging in telephony – ringing from the next room, muffled voices in conversation – becomes another form of connectivity, assuring us that somebody is home in the other room or the apartment next door. 


Typically, however, the development and increase of mechanical and electrical sound in domestic life is not studied in the context of connectivity. A common approach, which gained popularity in science and law in the 1920s, is to consider mechanical and electrical sound to be noise, and thus potentially harmful (Bijsterveld 2008: 171). In the social history of the telephone there are several indications that the sounds of telephony were understood by its users as intrusive noise. As telephone ownership became ubiquitous in the Western world during the late twentieth century, norms for using the telephone increasingly specified no calls or conversations during dinner, late in the evening, or during “quality time” (Abildgaard and Humphreys 2020). In my interview with Lisa (born in 1948), an annoyance with acoustic interruptions from the telephone – but also the difficulty of ignoring it as an alarm – was evident:


Lisa: But I think it is, it is, it is also disturbing that it rings like that, because I cannot help but think, I have a hard time kind of saying ignore it and just let it ring. I always feel like I think ugh, is it something serious, is it something I have to respond to? 


In terms of noise, what is perceived as annoying is not, of course, primarily the telephone’s alarming ringing. It is the prospect of stopping what you are engaged in to answer the call and taking part, instead, in a conversation that has an unknown relevance for you. Such a telephonic interruption can be relatively brief, in the form of a person leaving the room to answer the phone, but if several members of the household were spending their time in the same room as the landline telephone, a telephone conversation would also disturb those not participating in it. Landline owners living in households consisting of multiple people therefore often had rules to prevent such lengthy interruptions, as described by Steen (born in 1964):


Steen: There were rules, of course, for when we were in the living room […] you never talked on the telephone, especially not if the TV was on or you had guests […]. Those rules were there.

Interviewer: And why not talk in the living room?

Steen: Because if Joan and I and Eva were there, and we were maybe talking and the telephone rang […] then I can’t sit there and talk over the others.


Still, in the early twentieth century, norms for telephoning did not specify that calls during dinner or late in the evening should be avoided. This was during the period where “the serious telephone” was the dominant technological paradigm, considered a “technology for important messages for important people to be given briefly” (Abildgaard and Humphreys 2020). Arguably, it was not necessary to stipulate rules regarding when to call, as a telephone ringing during dinner would signal a brief and urgent message rather than a lengthy disruptive chat. As telephoning became an everyday activity in the course of the late twentieth century, the technology’s heritage as important bearer of urgent news meant that it remained difficult to ignore its ringing.


From the above description of the telephone’s ringing during dinner, we see how the telephone’s place in the home is relevant in terms of noise. Understanding telephone sounds as noise or interruption is thus directly related to the landline telephone as not just sounded technology, but as an immobile, fixed, domestic technology. The landline telephone as domestic fixture entails that the sounds of telephony come to demarcate a place in the home, as the telephone, once positioned, becomes a habitual part of the home’s acoustic territories. Sounds from immobile technologies – such as the rumble of the dishwasher or the ding of the microwave – may belong to the acoustic territories of the pantry or kitchen but not those of the hallway or bedroom. The ringing of the telephone for many belonged to the hallway, living room, or master bedroom – indicated by participants in this study as common sites for telephone placement in the late twentieth century. 


This aspect of telephonic sounds – perceived as belonging to certain acoustic territories – serves as a necessary preface to a story told by my informant Sandra (born in 1973). On her fifteenth or sixteenth birthday, she had been given a telephone by her friends. It was in the 1980s, and the telephone was a narrow, small model, designed to hang on the wall. The telephone, however, did not end up hanging on the wall. Instead, it was kept secret, as Sandra was not allowed to have a telephone in her room. To keep it hidden from sight, Sandra could slide the telephone underneath her sofa bed, behind which there was a telephone socket. I will return later to the sharing practices within the home that this example foreshadows and will only remark here that when Sandra used the secret telephone her parents could not keep track of how much and who she was calling. Most importantly, her little brother would not know, and so he could not listen in from another telephone, as he would often do. As a teenager, one of Sandra’s chores was to clean her own room, so she was safe from her parents stumbling upon the telephone. However, one day Sandra forgot to unplug the hidden telephone after finishing her call, and the next time the telephone rang in her home, the ring of a telephone could be heard outside its demarcated territory. It was Sandra’s little brother who heard the unfamiliar ringing from her room. He found the telephone under her sofa bed and was able to add another item to the long list of things he blackmailed her with. 


From Sandra’s story we see that the acoustic territories of the home authoritatively define which sounds “belong” where and that these territories are defended and upheld by the swift identification of and search for sources of “rogue” sounds, heard outside their territory. However, the negotiation of such acoustic territories in the domestic sphere involves much more than the design of domestic sound environments or avoiding the interruption of dinner. Because, of course, implied in any conflict over territory are questions of governance and power. Telephonic territories are expressions of the relationships between the inhabitants of the household, and they mirror what in domestication studies is known as the “accounting practices” of who lets who use what, of moral judgments of the other’s activities, of the expression of needs and desires, of justifications and conflict, of separateness and mutuality” (Silverstone and Hirsch 2005: 104).