The city’s first telephone lines were installed in the 1880s by the Chicago Telephone Company, which in 1920 changed its name to Illinois Bell to represent its growing domain. When the City Council granted the telephone franchise to Chicago Telephone, they also received a number of telephones “free of charge” for the city’s use.
Few homes or businesses had a telephone in those early years. Philip Beckman’s harness shop, which was on the corner of Washington Street where Jimmy’s Grill currently does business, was among the first, although the shop could only connect with his home. Pine Craig, or as it is known today, the Martin-Mitchell Mansion, also had a phone early on to assist with the brick and tile business the Martins ran out of their home office. The first public phone was installed in Thomas Saylor’s ice cream parlor.
Most phone service subscribers used party lines. The Chicago Telephone Company started pushing a two-party service by 1920 because “Troubles and annoyances, occasionally found on the four-party line, are eliminated,” but party-line services lingered for many years as it was cheaper. Saving money would soon became even more important, of course, due to the Great Depression which was followed by World War II.
Early wall phones required you to crank the magneto, which is a kind of generator, to power a bell that alerted the switchboard operator so you could ask them to connect you. Once your call was over, you cranked again to ring the bell to let them know they could disconnect you. The first candlestick phones also required the assistance of a switchboard operator, but instead of cranking a magneto, you clicked the receiver hook. Rotary phones were already available in 1920, but were not widely used for a few decades.
To add new subscribers and explain this new-fangled device, telephone companies ran ads in local newspapers, like the one from The Naperville Clarion reminding people not to be “cross” when they get a busy signal. They also published helpful articles in the phone books on how to best use one’s phone. The first phone books were just a dozen or so pages and everyone had a three-digit phone number – except for a couple of special cases. For instance, Edwards Sanitorium’s phone number was “6.”