In 1910 A Long Distance Call From New York City to Detroit, MI Was A Pricey $4.00 for the First 3 Minutes
Today phone calls are relatively inexpensive, but in 1910 making a 6 minute long distance call within the United States could cost you a week’s salary.
Reproduced above from the New York Telephone Directory of 1910 are the long distance rates from New York City to other cities.
In 1910 there were 7,084,000 telephones in the United States.
Long distance service was limited as you can see. There were few cities west of the Mississippi that you could call from New York. You want to call Houston, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle or Los Angeles? You’re out of luck.
The only way to communicate with many places would be to send a telegram.
Telegram rates varied by distance sent and had day and night rates. For a typical telegram you paid a flat rate for the first ten words and were charged a per word rate for each additional word. Address and signature were free. For example to send a telegram from New York to anywhere in Georgia was sixty cents for the first ten words and each additional word was four cents.
With telephone long distance prices being so expensive, you can see why people sent telegrams to communicate something urgent when the recipient was far away.
Expensive is a relative term but let’s take into account that the average weekly salary in 1910 was anywhere from about $10 for an average worker to $50 for a university professor.
So spending a few dollars to make a phone call was a real luxury. Today, we take for granted that you can walk around with a telephone and make a call to practically anywhere in the world for a few pennies.
If the person you wanted to reach by long distance did not have a telephone, for an additional charge you could use what the telephone company called “messenger service.” The phone company would send a messenger to the person’s address you provided and arrange to have them come to a designated telephone at a specified time to receive your call.
So what city was the most expensive place to call from New York? Little Rock, AR at $7.75 for the first three minutes followed by $2.25 per minute.
Here are a few sample rates for the first three minutes followed by the additional per minute charge.
Albany, NY $1.00 & .30
Atlanta, GA $5.25 & 1.75
Boston, MA $1.25 & .40
Charlotte, NC $3.50 & 1.15
Danbury, CT $0.40 & .10
Des Moines, IA $7.25 & $2.25
Indianapolis, IN $4.50 & $1.50
Milwaukee, WI $6.00 & $2.00
Portland, ME $1.75 & .50
Rockford, IL $5.00 & $1.50
Toledo, OH $4.00 & $1.25
Wilmington, NC $3.50 & $1.15
It’s easy to forget that flat-rate phone plans are a recent innovation. As recently as the late 90s I was using a calling card to call long distance (i.e. anyone outside your home area code). And growing up in the 70s, I recall long distance being reserved strictly for holidays or family emergencies. Back then, letter writing remained the preferred method of communication.
But getting back to 1910, those long distance rates truly are astounding, considering that back then, $25 a week was considered a respectable middle class wage. That first minute of a call to Arkansas would cost the equivalent of about $175 today.
I can remember that as recently as the ’80s when I was travelling I would phone home and let the phone ring twice then hang up to serve as a “safe-arrival” signal without incurring long-distance charges.