Sharing Domestic Telephony: Troubling Female Chatter, Erotic Boldness, and Indiscretions


In consideration of these household relationships and their implications for the landline telephone as a place-dependent domestic sound technology that is shared, an important resource that can aid our understanding of the politics of sharing is literature on other sound technologies in domestic settings, such as the radio and home stereo systems. In “'Turn it down!' she shrieked,” a study on high-fidelity systems from 1948-59, Keir Keightley found that men “used hi-fi sound reproduction technology (including its necessary adjunct, the Long Play [LP] record album) to produce a domestic space gendered as masculine” (Keightley 1996: 150). The period’s audio literature frequently mentions a need for environmental silence during the playing, even at high volume, of LPs on a hi-fi phonograph. This privileging of a masculine demand for silence is juxtaposed against the apparent insensitivity of (presumably) female “chatter” and social niceties. 


A similar history of the privileging of the masculine demand for silence can be outlined for the telephone, which in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was conceptualized as a serious technology used for brief and important conversations by professional and upper-class citizens, predominantly men (Wistoft 2007). In contrast, use of the telephone by women was portrayed as problematic, because it was assumed to include longer “chatty” conversations that were wasteful and frivolous. For men, who “wanted control of all communication conducted through the technology that belonged to them” (Marvin 1988: 24), women did not meet for important reasons, but merely to gossip. The telephone, which was a technology developed exclusively for business purposes, was losing its seriousness with women's practices. (Martin 1991: 164)


Interestingly, for the landline telephone, the privileging of masculine-imposed silence and restriction of female talk in shared familial areas did not entail that families primarily sought to place the landline telephone away from communal areas, in a bedroom or study, for example. Rather, a central, communal placement of the telephone was common, first because of infrastructural convention, as telephone lines in pre-1970s constructed homes had to be drawn into each home individually, often from the building’s facade (Jarløv and Kjøbenhavns Telefon 1956). This made hallway (or comparable front-room) placement the most straightforward. Second, there was a time consideration, as when any telephone starts to ring, a clock simultaneously begins ticking down to a time when the person called is considered “out” and connection is cut off, meaning that the ideal placement of a landline phone makes it most easily accessible for all its intended users throughout the home. Third, there was an element of control, as a central placement in a communal area afforded the opportunity to monitor calls with regard to both content and length. Conversely, having a telephone in one’s own room is a manifestation of power and independence, signifying that the room’s inhabitant is a privileged user of the household phone, holds a good chance of becoming “first responder” to a call (and not necessarily sharing the identity of the caller with the remaining household members), and enjoys a certain level of freedom both from familial rules regarding the use of telephones and the censorship of any possible communication with someone outside the household. In light of the above, in Denmark, ownership of more than one landline telephone in a household was uncommon until the 1980s,[3] and high calling rates led to a “metered mindset” (Donner 2015) where telephone use was highly monitored. This meant that especially for teenagers, who were in the process of building their own identity and developing relationships outside the household, using the common living room or hallway telephone was riddled with complications. One example of such complications can be found in my study on Danish phone-in radio, where a young listener in 1978 struggled with finding an opportunity to call in to Tværs, a phone-in advice program for teens aired on Sunday evenings:


I do know that I should phone in to Tværs with this .hh (.) but it is so hard to get to phone in to Tværs (1.0) because my mom she is always at home Sunday evening and my dad is too (.) and I can’t just phone in to Tværs when they sit in the living room (2.2) and I don’t really have the courage to go (.) to a telephone box (5.0). (Abildgaard 2014: 130)[4]


The phone-in radio program Tværs had a number you could call to talk to the program host for advice, often about deeply personal problems concerning callers’ relationships to their parents, sexual partners, and friends. The line was open on Sunday evening, with programs being taped a week in advance of broadcasting, allowing producers time to edit and anonymize. However, the infrastructure of the household landline telephone complicated and even discouraged this kind of intimate and preferably anonymous use of the technology (Abildgaard 2014).


The domestic placement of the telephone in this way becomes an instrument in controlling what is said with it. This aspect of sharing practices ties into the long-standing perception of the telephone as a threat, a theme that has often been repeated in literature on mobile telephony. As a two-way sound technology, the telephone call opens a door from the most intimate quarters of the home to the outside, and where that door leads depends solely on who is calling. As Michele Martin writes:


The new technology was seen as playing a part "in changing the prudish attitudes" of nineteenth-century women […] The telephone gives the flapper courage – and more it permits a girl to lie in her bed and to talk with a man lying in his bed; it permits her half-clothed, to talk with him a moment after its ring had made him hop nude out of his bathtub. Its delicate suggestiveness is not lost in these instances. (Martin 1991: 164)


The telephone thus complicated the auditory privacy and social order of the home still in place since the late Victorian era: “women were caught off-guard,” as the “barriers that their society had built in order to preserve privacy did not work with the telephone, and there was no time to construct new ones” (Martin 1991: 146). 


However, when we contrast the example of the flapper with that of the teenager above, approximately sixty years apart, it seems that the threat that the telephone – as an open line to the outside – continually posed seems to have shifted from one threatening the erotic innocence of women to one potentially destabilizing the nuclear family. With growing telephone use and ownership rates, children and teenagers could turn to the telephone to vent about private family matters and build relationships with non-household members. In “Make room for TV,” a study on the placement of the contemporary domestic technology television, Lynn Spigel describes similar fears with the introduction of the TV in the home: 


Television thus threatens to undermine the masculine position of power in the home to the extent that the father is disenfranchised from his family, whose gaze is fastened onto an alternate, and more seductive, authority. (Spigel 1992: 63)


Further, Spigel recounts how, in the early era of television, magazines depicted homes with special rooms designed exclusively for watching television: 


Sets were placed in children's playrooms or bedrooms, away from the central spaces of the home. In 1951, House Beautiful had even more elaborate plans. A fun room built adjacent to the home and equipped with television gave a teenage daughter a ‘place for her friends.’ For the parents it meant ‘peace of mind because teenagers are away from [the] house but still at home.’ (Spigel 1992: 67)


The argument that teenage access to a telephone in private would bring peace of mind did not, to the best of my knowledge, gain traction. Presumably, the telephone’s potential to establish an auditory two-way line to the outside world limited its appeal for parents. Additionally, while it may not have been a concern in all families that children or teenagers would use the telephone to discuss private family matters with people outside the household, participants in my study recounted how teenagers’ private access to a telephone was considered “unnecessary.”


As far as the late twentieth century, when many households were acquiring second telephones, these were placed in the kitchen or master bedroom; the child’s or teenager’s bedroom was where “the line was drawn,” as described by informant Katrine (born 1958). In the case of television, Spigel recounts a survey from 1954 that revealed that, despite inventive magazine suggestions, most households did install and keep their television in the living room, the central, common room of the house (Spigel 1992: 68). While such a placement of the television may not have done much to dispel the technology’s perceived threat to masculine dominance, in the case of the telephone, a similarly habitual placement in communal areas was arguably effective in reducing fears that it would lead to expensive overuse, female erotic boldness, or teenage indiscretions. 


In this section, I have focused on general tendencies in the placement of shared landline telephones. As mentioned in the introduction, studies of mobile phone use in relation to the home have emphasized that with mobile telephony youths could avoid surveillance and subvert existing "power geometries of space” (Ito 2005: 134). However, I also want to emphasize, as illustrated by Sandra’s secret telephone mentioned above, that while the landline telephone was commonly placed in communal areas, telephone use has a much longer history of subverting existing power geometries or “politics of place,” be it through the use of hidden phones or by moving landline phones between outlets. Another participant, Peter, remembers how, during his childhood in an affluent household in the 1940s and 50s, their young maid would move the telephone, which stood in his father’s study, so that it was sometimes missing when he or his parents wanted to telephone. Peter’s assumption was that she plugged it into another outlet in their large house so she could telephone in a more discreet location. In the following, I will take up this theme and emphasize ways in which landlines have been used to subvert and challenge not only existing power structures but also place-dependency itself.