Annunciator: Innovative Technology or Workplace Stressor?
By Carson Graef
The Clayton House was a very well-organized place in the late nineteenth century, especially considering how many people worked on the property. The Fricks could afford the best technologies available at the time, such as the service bell which was called the "annunciator." From most rooms in the house, a person could push a button to summon service. The employees would hear the call bell from the central system, located in the kitchen. On the annunciator console, arrows pointed to the location where the service request originated. The console designs were quite intricate and ornate. A Patrick and Carter Electric Company advertisement from the time even described it as “A Handsome and Elaborate Case,” suggesting that this tool was both useful and stylish. Listen to the sound of the bell in the re-construction below.
Sound clip created by Carson Graef using the sounds of the historic annunciator at Glessner House
While this technology seems like a marvel, improving communication in the household, would everyone have felt that way? The actual sound of the bell is quite loud and sharp. It rings on the D flat above middle C. The note itself is not too high. In fact, most voices could sing that pitch. It is the timbre that makes the sound of the bell so intrusive. Although it lands on that D flat, it also sounds many additional overtones and undertones. Likely it was designed this way so the sound could cut through loud conversations or other noises made by workers. This clearly made the annunciator an effective tool. However, the sound could have been a stressful element in the daily soundscape of the Frick’s domestic workers.
Workers had conflicted opinions about the annunciator. Social historian David Katzman noted in his book Seven Days a Week that one employee working at a household similar to the Frick’s claimed they were called over forty times in one day. These repeated calls would have undoubtedly caused stress. Also, waiting for calls that could come at any moment must have made it hard for employees to stay focused. Mary Elizabeth Carter described the life of a maid in Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy (1903), and said, “To be always...attached to one end of an electric wire, in readiness to respond to a call, to be at once in evidence and yet ever self-effaced, would not tempt one who has known the joy of independent movement.” A similar account appears in Wendy Danielle Madhill’s dissertation on domestic service bells, which states that, “Many white Charlestonians had a [worker] on-call, ready to respond to the entry doorbell or the drawing room bell” (58). We can presume that at least one of the seven employees working in Clayton daily in 1895 had the day-to-day job of answering these calls and fulfilling the requests. If a call was made from the bedrooms or the study, the employee would need to climb the stairs to answer the summons, then traverse the steps again to fulfill the request. The annunciator was a tremendous convenience for the Fricks but could have been a tremendous inconvenience for workers.
Today, there is no need for a call bell system in a modern home. We can text or call each other instead of yelling across the house or using an annunciator. In fact, cell phones allow us to be in constant communication with friends, family, teachers, employees, and employers, from just about anywhere. This has also changed how we view response times. The response time to the annunciator likely was between thirty seconds to two minutes. Today, response times can be almost instantaneous because of our devices. Our responsiveness to texts or emails might vary based on our relationship with the sender. Consider whether you respond to a message faster if it is a close friend or a co-worker.
Carter, Mary Elizabeth, and Margaret Armstrong. Millionaire Households and Their Domestic Economy: With Hints upon Fine Living. D. Appleton & Company, 1903.
Gross, Linda. “Bells Are Ringing: How to Call Your Servant ‘Downton Abbey’ Style.” Hagley, 9 Jan. 2019, https://www.hagley.org/ru/about-us/news/published-collections-bells-are-ringing.
Henningsen, Caitlin. “Untold Histories: The Push of a Button.” The Frick Collection, https://www.frick.org/blogs/education/untold_histories_push_button.
Madill, Wendy Danielle. “Noiseless, Automatic Service: The History of Domestic Servant Bell Systems in Charleston, South Carolina, 1740-1900.” Clemson University, thesis, 2013.