Busy Signal: Why Talking on the Phone Was a No-No During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

Americans had to think twice before picking up the telephone during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Americans had to think twice before picking up the telephone during the 1918 flu pandemic.
ArisSu/iStock via Getty Images

Of the many compromises and concessions people have had to make during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve at least been able to remain in contact with others by telephone. It might be a minor consolation given the lack of in-person social activity, but we’d certainly miss it if it were gone.

Americans during the 1918 flu pandemic weren’t quite as fortunate. In a story for Fast Company, Harry McCracken explains that residents were often dissuaded from using the phone, and it turns out that the old system of switchboard operation was to blame.

The H1N1 virus, which ultimately infected 500 million people globally and was responsible for 50 million deaths, was spreading across the United States at a time when roughly one-third of American households had telephones. Prior to the pandemic, companies like Bell Telephone promoted the invention as a way of keeping in touch with loved ones even if diseases like diphtheria or smallpox were forcing them apart. But the rampaging nature of the flu proved to be a poor fit for the analog phone systems, which depended on human operators connecting a call between two parties. Like any workforce, employees were susceptible to getting sick, which led to a reduction in their numbers. Reduced call capacity followed.

When the New York Telephone Company saw the number of switchboard workers cut in half, they began mailing cards to customers urging them to avoid using their phones. Idle chatter was discouraged. Instead, callers were asked to limit communication to emergencies or to follow up on medical needs. People calling to ask for the time of day—a common habit of the time—were frowned upon.

“Don’t telephone unless it is absolutely necessary,” one New York Telephone Company notice read.

“It is of the utmost importance that calls for doctors, drug stores, and all emergency calls arising from the epidemic be handled efficiently and it is the earnest desire of the company to do this,” a Piedmont Telephone and Telegraph Company message read. In other words—stop calling to ask what time it is.

Operators endured long after the pandemic, with the occupation remaining part of the telephone industry through the 1980s. Automated calls reduced or eliminated the need for operators, and today there’s no intermediary needed to connect with someone. (The last remaining switchboard in California closed in 1991.) While no one is at their most comfortable at the moment, at least someone’s voice is available on the other end of the line whenever you need to hear it.

[h/t Fast Company]

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Florence’s Plague-Era Wine Windows Are Back in Business

A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.
A wine window in Florence's Via Santo Spirito.

Many bars and restaurants have started selling takeout cocktails and other alcoholic beverages to stay in business—and keep customers safe—during the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, 17th-century Florentines are surely applauding from their front-row seats in the afterlife.

As Insider reports, a number of buildings in Florence had been constructed with small “wine windows,” or buchette del vino, through which vendors sold wine directly to less affluent customers. When the city suffered an outbreak of plague in the 1630s, business owners recognized the value of these windows as a way to serve people without spreading germs. They even exchanged money on a metal tray that was sanitized with vinegar.

Wine not?sailko, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Things eventually went back to normal, and the windows slowly fell out of fashion altogether as commerce laws evolved. This year, however, they’ve made a comeback. According to Food & Wine, there are currently at least four in operation around Florence. Osteria delle Brache in Piazza Peruzzi is using its window to deliver wine and cocktails, for example, and the Vivoli ice cream shop, a go-to dessert spot since 1929, is handing out sweet scoops and coffee through its formerly dormant aperture.

Apart from the recent resurgence of interest, the wine windows often go unnoticed by tourists drawn to the grandeur of attractions like the Uffizi Gallery and the Florence Cathedral. So in 2015, locals Matteo Faglia, Diletta Corsini, and Mary Christine Forrest established the Wine Window Association to generate some buzz. In addition to researching the history of the windows, they also keep a running list of all the ones they know of. Florence has roughly 150, and there are another 100 or so in other parts of Tuscany.

They’re hoping to affix a plaque near each window to promote their stories and discourage people from defacing them. And if you want to support their work, you can even become a member of the organization for €25 (about $29).

[h/t Insider]