The American war against telephone poles

| February 4, 2009 | 3 Replies

In a short article entitled, “The War on Telephone Poles,” the February 2009 edition of Harper’s Magazine includes a fascinating excerpt from an essay by Eula Biss, which was originally titled “Time and Distance Overcome” as it appeared in the Spring issue of Iowa Review.  Biss’s article is a terrific example of the human tendency to resist long-range change that would substantially improve the community as a whole.

Image by Jordim at Dreamstime (with permission)

As she clearly documents in her essay, many people ferociously opposed the erection of telephone poles back in the 1880’s.  Whatever their stated reasons (aesthetics and defense of private property were often argued), the real reasons for resisting telephone poles were timeless: fear of change combined with a warped sense of the importance the individual in relation to his or her community.  The Biss essay reminds us that Americans have long been quite capable of harpooning critical community-building endeavors in the name of individual freedom.  We don’t fight telephone poles anymore, but this destructive tendency is one we still see in modern day America.

Only a small bit of Biss’s essay is available online. The basic idea presented by her essay is that in the 1880s, numerous people (including elected officials and newspapers) ferociously opposed the erection of telephone poles. They argued that telephone poles were ugly. They characterized telephones to be considered playthings of the rich. Here’s an excerpt from the Biss essay:

By 1889, the New York Times was reporting a “War on Telephone Poles.” Wherever telephone companies erected poles, homeowners and business owners were sawing them down, or defending their sidewalks with rifles. Property owners in Red Bank, New Jersey, threatened to tar and feather the workers putting up telephone poles. A judge found that a man who had cut down a pole because it was “obnoxious” was not guilty of malicious mischief. Telephone poles, newspaper editorials complained, were an urban blight . . .

The city council in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ordered policemen to cut down all the telephone poles in town. And the mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, ordered the police chief and the fire department to chop down the telephone poles there. Only one pole was chopped down before the telephone men climbed all the poles along the line, preventing any more chopping  . . .

Despite the war on telephone poles, it would take only four years after Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of more than 10,000 people to be wired . . . by 1900, telephones outnumbered bathtubs in America . . .

What is the lesson to be learned? Perhaps it is that human nature hasn’t changed much at all. There is, for example, an intense American push-back to any meaningful effort to conserve energy by becoming fuel-efficient.  Americans will talk the talk, but many of us have no real intention of walking the walk. That would require each of us to make changes to our lifestyles; we resist such changes even though relatively minor changes (e.g., taking mass transit or buying more fuel efficient cars) would substantially benefit our communities.  The thought of the “government” requiring individuals to change their ways, even if done for the overall good of the community, enrages untold Americans.

We should be collectively scrambling to embrace change to deal with all of our energy and resource issues, but many Americans are doing the opposite.  Instead of embracing conservation, many Americans throw out the same charges against green energy policies that people once used to attack those who would install telephone poles. These accusations are even being used by limousine liberals who own beachfront property on Martha’s Vineyard in order to prevent the installation of wind turbines that would generate substantial amounts of clean electricity throughout Cape Cod.

The Biss essay about telephone poles also reminds me of the under-appreciated power of stare decisis and path dependency , issues on which I’ve posted previously.

Will Americans ever willingly put more planet-friendly food in their mouths? Will they learn to use and allocate resources in ways that preserve our precious soil for future generations?  Will Americans ever truly realize that when they take steps to produce cleaner energy and to use it more wisely, that they will be helping themselves, as well as those future generations? Will we ever muster the discipline to solve the tragedy of the commons?  If history is any guide, it’s not going to be easy.

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Environment, History, ignorance

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    This post reminds me of a funny skit by George Carlin, in which he portrayed himself as a reporter interviewing Alexander Graham Bell about the telephone:

    Reporter: Where are you going to put all those telephones?

    Bell: Everywhere! In every home, on every desk!

    Reporter: And how will you connect them?

    Bell: Wire! Miles and miles of wire!

    Reporter: Miles of wire? Where will you put it?

    Bell: On poles! Gonna put up poles all over the country and hang wires from the poles!

  2. We think the telephone controversy silly now because none of us know a world without them. Truth be told, they ARE ugly, but we have learned to ignore them and accept a less esthetically beautiful world in the interests of better communication.

    However, those initial critics were right in that they were trying to keep from losing something precious that future generations won't even realize is lost!

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    Mike wrote, "However, those initial critics were right in that they were trying to keep from losing something precious that future generations won’t even realize is lost!"

    That observation applies equally well to many things. Years ago, when we left the office at day's end, we left the office. Now, with cell phones and WiFi, the office follows us everywhere. And having GPS means we don't need to meet locals to ask for directions. And having hospitals means doctors don't make house calls. And we now watch public school systems gut their arts, music and phys ed programs to meet their budgets, shutting out the kids with creativity and sending all of them on a path toward obesity.

    Indeed, we should be careful what we wish for, because the day may come when we don't even realize what we've lost.

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