A Chequered Progress: Farmers and the Telephone in Canada, 1905-1951

By Pike, Robert M. | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

A Chequered Progress: Farmers and the Telephone in Canada, 1905-1951


Pike, Robert M., Journal of Canadian Studies


The discontinuous and contingent development of farm and rural telephony in Canada, between 1905 and 1951, is explored in light of the common mythology of the inevitability of technological diffusion. The major spread of farm phones between 1905 and 1921 is traced and analysed, as is the major decline in farm telephone ownership during the Depression and the subsequent slow recovery. Provincial variations in phone farm diffusion are examined in light of average farm income, public and private phone company policies and the socio-economic context of agriculture. The argument that the automobile was substituted for the phone is discussed, with particular reference to the three prairie provinces, as is also the relatively swift recovery of Canadian farm telephony compared with the United States.

Le developpement discontinue et contingente de la telephonie rurale et fermitre au Canada entre 1905 et 1951 est explor6e a la lumiere des mythes courants sur la nature inevitable de la diffusion de la technologie. L'augmentation importante du nombre de telephones dans les fermes entre 1905 et 1921 est tracee et analysee, de meme que la grande diminution du nombre de telephones appartenant aux fermiers durant la DBpression, avec la reprise lente qui l'a suivie. Les variations provinciales quant A la penetration des foyers ruraux par la telgphonie sont examinees en tenant compte du revenu agricole moyen, des politiques des compagnies de tel*phone publiques et privees et du contexte sociogconomique de l' agriculture. La these selon laquelle l' automobile aurait remplac6 le telephone est discutee, surtout en se r6f6rant aux trois provinces des Prairies. De plus, on examine la reprise relativement rapide de la t6lEphonie rurale au Canada en la comparant A celle qu'on a connue aux Etats-Unis.

This country's geographical scale and relatively small and scattered population has fostered a tendency to perceive the formation and maintenance of Canadian polity and society as uniquely dependent upon the swift adoption and diffusion of new communications technologies. Communications scholar Robert Babe believes that this tendency reflects a series of myths that place perceived reliance on communications technologies as central elements in nation building and policy formation.' Thus in Canada, the discovery, mass popularity and concomitant widespread diffusion of these technologies is often seen as a given, as "part of an inevitable unfolding of modernization."' The widespread and speedy household adoption of cable television and the VCR tends to support this perception.

The belief in the inevitable speedy adoption of new communications technologies is also part of the American ethos, but has been given the lie by Claude Fischer's detailed social historical studies of the reception given to the early telephone, and notably his work on American rural telephony.' Following its invention in 1876, the telephone remained predominantly an urban phenomenon in North America until after the turn of the century. By 1920, however, American farmers' ownership of telephones had reached a high water mark, exceeding town families' ownership at 39 per cent compared to 35 per cent.4 This burgeoning expansion of the American rural telephone, born of early dynamic competition, was then reversed during the next two decades; the instrument was found in only 25 per cent of farmers' homes compared to 39 per cent of non-farm households in 1940.5 The 1920 farm diffusion rate was only reached again in 1950 when it was supported by cheap loans and technical assistance from the the American federal government. In short, rural telephony (and, to a lesser extent, all telephony ) in the United States experienced major vicissitudes that were far removed from the popular Canadian and American vision of the inevitable triumph of new technologies.

Fischer has devoted much research to seeking explanations for these shifts in the rural telephone market, including the possibility that new technologies, notably the automobile, competed functionally with the telephone for tight consumer resources. …

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