The turn of the last century was a busy time for two competing communication technologies, the telegraph and the telephone. Amazingly, our streets still bear witness to those days.
Telegraphy was the long-established, default technology in the 1870s. Newspapers, governments, banks and businesspeople of all kinds relied on telegraphy to transmit documents and other written communications, especially for long-distance messaging by teleprinter. By the 1860s, cities like San Francisco had networks of telegraphic call boxes for top-crust suits, who could press a button in their home or office to summon a messenger boy.
The Postal Telegraph Cable Company was a nationwide competitor to Western Union until the 1940s, kind of like Apple versus Microsoft. This utility-hole cover is at Franklin and 7th streets.
The company was founded in 1887 as the Pacific Postal Telegraph Cable Company, in San Francisco. The “Pacific” was lopped off some time before 1908, when the business directory listed its Oakland headquarters at 1058 Broadway. It still had the name as of 1917, but eventually its name became Postal Telegraph Company. Western Union finally took it over during the World War II years (1943 or 1945 depending on the source), but telegraphs had already lost the competition with telephones.
Speaking of which, the first telephone network in the Bay area was launched in 1877 by a spinoff of Western Union. In 1880 it merged with a competitor to become the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, the ancestor of “Pac Bell.”
In 1883, a new company under the same management was set up to operate telephone networks everywhere in the West outside of San Francisco. At first named Sunset Telephone-Telegraph Company, it took the name Sunset Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1889. This ST&T Co. cover, with a unique scallop design, is at 6th and Franklin streets.
Undergrounding of telephone lines began in the 1890s, so I think that’s the earliest this cover could be. The 1898 directory listed Sunset at 572 12th Street, and in 1908 Sunset was at 1275 Franklin Street. It had merged the year before with the Pacific States Telephone & Telegraph Company.
And who were they? They were Pacific Bell, reincorporated in 1890 as The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company and changed in 1900 to Pacific States T&T. This TPT&T Company cover is somewhere in the lower Uptown area.
Pacific was granted its Oakland franchise by the city in 1892, so presumably the cover dates from the 1890s.
Finally, there was the short-lived Home Telephone Company, which had subsidiaries serving local subscribers in cities across the country. There was an Oakland Home Telephone Co. and a Home Telephone Co. of Alameda County, here represented by a cover on 20th Street near Rashida Muhammad Street.
The firm was listed at 19th and Cypress Streets in the 1908 directory, while Oakland Home was at 67 Bacon Block. It was incorporated in 1905 (“one of several branch companies incorporated by the main concern”), and had its Oakland franchise granted in February 1906. Some time before 1911, the various Home Companies merged into Bay Cities Home Telephone Company. Pacific T&T absorbed it in 1912, taking over Home’s 50-year franchise.
Pacific T&T, like most other telephone companies, was really part of the Bell System. . .
. . . which itself was part of AT&T (originally the American Telephone and Telegraph Company).
The wonderful Deco office tower of Pacific Tel and Tel, known for many years as the Pac Bell building, is a San Francisco landmark to this day.