Rare 1910 map of the United States touting the coverage of phone lines owned or controlled by AT&T

Heliotype Co., Boston, LINES OF THE BELL TELEPHONE COMPANIES UNITED STATES AND CANADA JULY 1, 1909. [New York:] American Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1910.
Map printed in 3 colors, 26 ½”h x 38 ¾”w at neat line plus margins. Original printed pocket folder separated but retained. Lower left with small losses along folds and at point of adhesion to folder. Folder with minor soiling, staining and wear.

A rare 1910 thematic map of AT&T’s Bell Telephone System, produced at a time when “Ma Bell” had a near-stranglehold on the nation’s long-distance and local phone service.

The map depicts the United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico, including state and provincial boundaries and the courses of major river systems. Heavy blue lines indicate long-distance telephone lines owned by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), particularly dense in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, with one long line extending west to Denver. Finer blue lines indicate the local and regional phone lines owned by the Bell Telephone Companies, all of which were controlled by or affiliated with AT&T through direct ownership or franchise arrangements.

The motto on the front of the accompanying pocket folder says it all: “One Policy—One System—Universal Service”, even if the latter remained somewhat aspirational. Coverage in much of the West remained spotty, and transcontinental service was not introduced until 1915.

“The Bell Telephone Company [later renamed AT&T], which was founded in 1877, faced some competition early on from Western Union, but then enjoyed a virtual monopoly on telephone service until 1894, when some of Bell’s patents expired. Sociologist Claude Fischer writes[1] of the years after that expiration: “Within a decade literally thousands of new telephone ventures emerged across the United States.” Some of those independents went into rural areas that Bell had not covered, because the company had focused on developing service in the business centers of the East Coast.


“By the time this map was printed, Bell had tried several different strategies, clean and dirty, to fight back against its competition, including (Fischer writes) “leveraging its monopoly on long-distance service,” pursing patent suits, controlling vendors of telephone equipment, and simply using its deep pockets to outlast smaller companies that tried to enter the market.


“Theodore N. Vail, who took over in 1907, changed strategies, accepting limited government regulation while buying competitors or bringing them into the Bell system. The map shows Bell’s market penetration in 1910, three years after Vail took over. Some rural areas—Oklahoma, Iowa, northern and eastern Texas—are surprisingly well-covered, while others in the Southeast remain empty.


“The discrepancy between coverage in the East and the West is perhaps the most striking aspect of the map. California remains sparsely served, and no long-distance lines reach all the way from coast to coast. AT&T constructed the first transcontinental line in 1914.” (Rebecca Onion, “A Telephone Map of the United States Shows Where You Could Call Using Ma Bell in 1910” in Slate, March 16, 2015)

Accustomed as we are to being able to call, text or email anyone, anywhere, at any time, it’s hard to grasp the power of the map’s message in 1910. At the time the telegraph was still a cost-competitive option… indeed, AT&T purchased Western Union the year before this map appeared. But the immediacy and richness of voice-to-voice telecommunication must have been mind-blowing, as was the idea that a customer could access this service in the comfort of one’s home or business in all but the more remote parts of the country.

OCLC 55108849 gives a somewhat variant title, giving only a single holding at Cornell, but I suspect it’s the same map. Rumsey #3627 lists a larger-format edition mounted as a wall map. OCLC 78822590 also lists this larger edition, giving only a single holding at the American Philosophical Society.

[1] Claude S. Fischer, America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, pp. 42-43.