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speaking tubes

Questions and answers relating to houses built in the 1800s and before.

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speaking tubes

Postby dirk on Wed Jul 14, 2004 9:59 pm

Anyone have an idea on where I might find speaking tube fixtures. I have about 10 speaking tube pipes sticking out of walls where the fixtures have "walked away" TIA
1889 Victorian
St. Paul, MN
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Postby catya on Thu Jul 15, 2004 9:47 pm

what are they
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Postby Suzanne on Thu Jul 15, 2004 11:56 pm

The speaking tubes were a 19th century, pre-electric, intercom system in large, and not so large, upperclass houses. They consist of a series of pipes (tubes) that connected the major rooms of the house to the servant's areas, ie, the kitchen, butler's pantry, maid's quarters, and any other working area. This way Madame in her bedroom, could speak into her tube, which had a lily shaped bell on each end, sometimes in brass, similar to that on an old ring and speak into the receiver, phone, and tell her maid down in the laundry room, that she needed her. My house has 3 tubes which are in a line, which come out into the kitchen wall. They are no longer connected, and the tubes on the other ends are long gone. They are also coated in a ton of paint, so I don't know what the actual bell part is made of.

They were often labelled so the servants knew which room someone else was speaking from. You can sometimes see them in period movies. I think there are some in Gosford Park, and maybe Remains of the Day, but don't quote me on that. To me, they are another reminder that my house is old, and life in it, when it was new, is certainly different than it is now.

You can often find the bell parts in antique and salvage places. Most people don't know what they are. I've been in houses where they have the tubes, and also a bell system right above it, so servants could be rung for service, as well as called. It's all rather cool, as long as you don't have to be a servant.
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Postby dirk on Mon Jul 19, 2004 2:47 pm

Fortunately I have quite a few that are still functional. A couple of bedrooms to Kitchen, Bedroom to basement, Parlor to Kitchen. Unfortunately previous owners took the decorative part and left me with an ugly tin pipe sticking out of the walls. I'm always keeping my eye out for them when I'm at salvage yards and antique stores but no luck yet.
1889 Victorian
St. Paul, MN
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Speaking Tubes

Postby MJLarson on Fri Apr 13, 2007 7:48 pm

I'm ALSO looking for Speaking Tube parts and pictures - with no luck.

I have a big old victorian eclectic house in Western Mass. built around 1898, with speaking tubes in the walls that were uncovered when patching plaster. There's two 1-inch metal/tin? tubes, one between 1st floor kitchen and second floor hallway and another between 2nd floor and a third floor bedroom. The second floor spot in the hallway wall has two tube openings around face height when standing, one going up and one going down, spaced a few inches apart vertically. The ends of the metal tubes were cut roughly and plastered over. They are still connected - we tested with marbles.

I'm looking for parts for and pictures of vintage Speaking Tubes and/or ideas for getting or making parts to restore them. None of the old hardware places online seem to have them. I've found a few pictures using web search engines but none that seem to be the right kind for our house, or the pictures dont show enough. Thanks in advance for help!!!

- Peg Larson peg7larson@gmail.com Pittsfield, Mass.
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Postby cs on Sat Apr 14, 2007 9:48 am

This is a shot in the dark, but there is a great company (http://www.phonecoinc.com/) that refurbishes early telephones and caries a full line of replacement parts. They are great to deal with and quite helpful at solving problems. I wonder if some of the parts of a “candle stick” type of phone could not be adapted for use as a replacement for the decorative end of a speaking tube. Who knows, they might even have real speaking tube parts.

Good luck!

Chris
http://www.saracenihouse.com
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Postby S Melissa on Sat Apr 14, 2007 10:56 am

I wonder - not really knowing what these parts look like, but understand the concept - if they can't be made by a tinsmith? Perhaps, then painted in a tole finish - black with gold details? I wonder too if bookish - the keeper of all old fashioned fashion might not have a source for what they looked like???
Melissa
Canton, MI
1860 Italianate - Reuben Huston Home
Image
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Speaking Tubes

Postby MJLarson on Sat Apr 14, 2007 11:30 am

I have found drawings of Speaking Tubes from the US Patent office (uspto.gov). The oldest patent that showed up was from the mid 1850's. I searched for category #181, subcategories .5 and 18-22. There's about 150 patents dated before 1910 to looks through. The oldest patent I found was for a listening tube for train conductors to hear noises from outside the train. The next oldest on was sortof a switchboard for multi-tube installations. Others were for tubes with bells and whistles - literally. The pictures are line drawings.

So far I've only read through about five of the listings. Hopefully I'll find pictures that show something we can easily recreate. It seems that what I need to find or create are the 'trumpet' shaped mouthpieces that fit on the end of the tubes, possiibly with a mounting plate, flexible tube and a place to hang the mouthpiece. I'll post again when I find more. - Peg
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Postby cs on Sat Apr 14, 2007 11:37 am

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Speaking Tubes pre-1900 vintage

Postby MJLarson on Sat Apr 14, 2007 12:59 pm

The patent-office pictures of Speaking Tubes include really interesting line drawings. I could spend a month looking! They're big image files (but good quality) and it takes some time to get through them. Also, there's a lot of old newspapers online (such as at ancestry.com, cornell univ library, etc.) that are text searchable but I found too many hits to easily find advertisements with pictures. They dont seem to have phrase-based searching, and the two words speaking and tube happen to turn up in many other contexts.

I have tried looking through historic houses, through the Library of Congress and the National Archives historic photos online, and online real-estate ads for old houses trying to find domestic interior photos that might have Victorian-era Speaking Tubes, but I only found one that's even close to what I think I'm looking for. Someone wrote to me telling me that they were sometimes called 'Butler's Tubes'.

There is a rather expensive door-bell combo reproduction speaking tube apparutus thats sold by a British company, but it's not quite what I want. I just want something simple that functions, looks good but doesn't cost too much, and is somewhat accurate historically.

The mouthpiece parts from candlestick phones are the best thing I've found so far. My next step will be to look through naval ships and marine suppliers to see what's there. The whole subject of Speaking Tubes is interesting and fun since it's a bit elusive. And, it's a great case study in the history of innovation and invention. I think I'll keep researching and looking. Maybe I'll end up writing a book about them. Thanks for the encouragement!

- Peg
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