The Barkers’ Smart Home

TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Historians today refer to our current time period as a “New Gilded Age” an era marked by the same economic issues and cultural debates of the first Gilded Age, e.g., similar levels income inequality, debates over immigration, the rise of mega-corporations (Standard Oil vs. Amazon). While these big parallels bring up very important historical questions (I’ll write a blog post on them soon), I am more interested in some more subtle parallels that may or may not be parallels as much as they are points on a single line of continuity from the Gilded Age. These parallels are technological.

The Gilded Age was an era marked by extreme technological change. Before the 19thcentury humans had never traveled faster than wind, water, or horse but suddenly in the Gilded Age, the onset of railroads and steamships meant that humans could travel incredible distances at never-heard-from-before speeds. Today our society is seeing public interest in similar changes in human abilities, such as hyperloops, accessible space travel, and even teleportation (recently researchers have been able to teleport photons). The first Gilded Age also saw the rise of a print media and the first wire press services, e.g., the Associated Press. With telegraphs and telephones human ideas and communication could travel much faster than ever before (I always think about how in 1815 Andrew Jackson fought the battle of New Orleans without knowing that a peace treaty was already signed on the other side of the Atlantic). After the millennium, humans’ ability to communicate and transmit knowledge has been rapidly expanded to all corners of the globe and as well entirely new mediums of communication, i.e., social media.

I try to keep these parallels in mind when designing interpretive programming. Freeman Tilden’s first principle of heritage interpretation calls for this:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

To make meaningful interpretive programs and to ultimately provoke visitors to take part in stewarding our site, programming needs to connect to the experience of the visitor. I try to do some of this every day during the 1pm guided tour of the mansion. When on tour I invoke the technological parallels of the first Gilded Age to explain how the Barkers’ warming oven was an ‘old-fashioned microwave’ or that Mrs. Barker’s calling hour filled the same function as Facebook. This is of course simply using metaphors, not invoking concrete historical parallels. Some of these similarities are historical continuities; i.e., the warming oven was a device filled to fit the exact same demand as the modern microwave, the microwave is just more advanced.

A lot of new technology seems to lack a Gilded Age precursor for me to interpret. I previously thought that smart home technology such as Amazon Echo, voice-activated lights, smart TV’s, wholly lacked Gilded Age precursors. I am not a fan of this technology, in fact, I loathe smart home devices; at one point where I ordered my roommate to remove an Amazon Echo from our dining room. I am not afraid of technology, I wrote this blog post on a mac, after all, I just distrust the introduction of this technology into my life. The smart home is just too much too fast for me, too similar to the Telescreen in George Orwell’s 1984 or the spaceship in the movie Wall-E. My fears might be unfounded though, the smart home might not be that radical, in fact, this week I found some historical precedents for the Amazon Echo in the Barker Mansion.

Every week I reread bits and pieces of the several-hundred pages of work orders, drawings, blueprints, contracts, and bids for the construction of the mansion that I have saved on my desktop. This week I ran across the original plans for the telephone and bell system inside the mansion and decided to spend some more time picking them apart.


The telephone and bell system was described in a two-page work order from May 16, 1905. The plans were drawn up by the architect Frederick Wainwright Perkins and the contract for the work was signed two months later on July 22, 1905. The contract was between John H. Barker and electricians, Boyd and Garrettson, and the original cost was $1,300 for everything all together (roughly $35,000-40,000 in 2019). The contract included the “bell and telephone work” as well as the electric wiring in the mansion. The contract called for the conduits and wiring, and it is not clear if this included the telephone and bells themselves. Using these documents along with the remaining buzzers, bells, intercoms, and telephones in the mansion, I was able to paint a near-complete picture of how the system worked.

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The plans called for a “cabinet furnished oak annunciator of four drops” in the Butler’s Pantry and another one “of six drops” in the second-floor servant’s hallway. The annunciator was a wooden panel which contained rows of ‘drops’ that would signal when and where call buttons built into the walls of several rooms were pressed. The Butler’s pantry had four drops for the front door, porch, library, and drawing room. The annunciator on the second floor had six drops; one for each of the five second-floor bedrooms and one for the master bathroom.

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What did the drops look like exactly? Well, there are a few different types of drops in annunciators at the time. Some annunciators had drops that were holes which would uncover when a button was pressed. Another type had “drops” that were tabbed which would flip over like the numbers in a 1980s alarm clock (like the one that woke Bill Murray up in the 1993 film Groundhog Day). Other annunciators had arrows that turned when the buttons were pressed. I am not sure what the Barkers’ looked like, but I will keep digging in the historical record.

None of the annunciators are still in place, but most of the call buttons remain on the second floor. The plans ordered that the call buttons would be “bronze plated.” The buttons that remain on these floors are all set inside the bronze plates around the light switches. The buttons on the second floor were of this variety while the buttons in the drawing room and library were “Pullman pushes” with “black rubber buttons.” The drawing button appears to have been walled over, but you cans till feel the wiring behind the cloth wallpaper beneath the light switches. The library button was still in place and was set in wood. I did not see any black rubber on the button.

The front door and lower hall door (the garden door) included doorbells that would ring two different tones from a spot near the Butler’s pantry as well as in the servant’s hall upstairs. The butler’s room is across the hall from the butler’s pantry, and the first-floor one was likely situated so that the butler could hear them in either room. The two doorbells would also ring a ‘faint single stroke bell’ throughout the first floor. The bells would also be connected to the annunciator so that whenever a call button was pressed the servants would know to go look at the annunciators to see where they are needed. If a servant was by the annunciator, they could turn a switch that would turn the bell off so that it would not ring when the annunciators are pressed. This was likely to be done at night so that the on-call maids could watch the annunciator while not having the entire house woken up by the bells playing. Two buttons that remain in the Butler’s pantry are likely the ones used to turn the bells off.

In additions to the doorbells were two bells in the dining room and the Valet’s room. The Valet’s room bell was connected to a “silk cord extension push” in Mr. Barker’s bedroom; the two rooms were connected by a walk-in closet. A silk cord extension push was simply a porcelain button like the other call buttons in the house. The silk cord was a silk covered electrical cord that ran out from the top of the button panel. The silk cord and the buttons have nee taken out of these rooms, but some silk cords still remain in the mansion, attached to some telephones and lamps.

The plans called for another silk cord extension push in the dining room that turned on a “buzzer” in the Butler’s pantry. This specific detail has turned out to be a major puzzle for me. Today, a wooden outline of a button can be felt in the dining room table, and I was instructed that the button turned in a light bulb in the Butler’s pantry and not a bell. The light was at the end of the pantry, and it was above two buttons built into the wall that controlled the bells sound. The angle and placement of the light make me think it was used for signaling because it would not be providing much light where it is, and it is close to the buttons in the wall.

This historical detail has proved elusive. I have poured through the extensive electric lighting contracts and have not found any order for an electric light connected to the table button nor have I found instructions for the light bulb at the end of the Butler’s pantry. The electric specification called for an overhead light and two lamps over the windows, but no light bulb at the end of the room. It is possible that the buzzer was changed out for a light bulb at some point after all the work specifications are not definitive, changes occur all the time, and the Barkers may have changed their mind at some point after the buzzer was installed. It is also possible that the buzzer was used and instead the light bulb was added to give extra light in front of the refrigerator that sat across from where the bulb is today. The refrigerator was behind a cabinet at the very end of the room and would not have gotten very much light from the overhead light. Thus I am at a historical impasse, but hopefully, I will be able to piece together the puzzle soon; there is surely some detail out there I have missed in either the 800-page architectural documents or in the mansion archives. This is why I love primary sources.

The documents also included orders for quite several telephones inside the mansion. The mansion includes “six-eight station intercommunicating telephones,” these were intercom phones that could call one another throughout the home. The phones were “eight stations” rather than six because the Barkers had two extra phone lines in case they needed more intercoms (it did specify where the outlets were). Three intercoms were in the laundry, kitchen, and servants’ hallway. Another intercom was in Mr. Barker’s bedroom while another was on the third floor. An intercom is still in place on the third floor, but it does not appear to be the one installed in 1905. While the plans called for eight phone lines, but the one installed on the third floor has ten numbers lines and then two extra lines “H” and “I.” I am not sure what the extra two lines and “H” and “I” were for.

It is possible that this phone was added in by Catherine Barker in the 1920s, but it is still possible that the phone is original. The original specifications had called for three white oak intercoms and a mahogany intercom on the third floor and another mahogancy intercom in Mr. Barker’s room, but the words white oak and mahogany have been crossed out on the specifications. The third-floor intercom that is there today is made from what appears to be brass or copper. The words appear to have been crossed out by Boyd and Garrettson (their signature appears in the same color ink a few inches below where they are crossed out) and may have been a change added in when the addenda were signed. This means it is possible that the current metal intercom and more lines were added when they were first installed.

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The sixth intercom was a “nickel-plated desk instrument” in Mrs. Barker’s morning room on the second floor. This final phone was the only phone that was able to call out of the mansion. The phone, along with a telephone register filled with the names and numbers of various businesses and society individuals in Chicago still sit in Mrs. Barker’s sitting room today.

The final instructions in the contract was an addendum to the specifications when the contract was signed on July 22, 1905. The addenda specified that the telephones would be “non-interfering flush telephones” made by the “Electric Gas Lighting Co” through “Allen Haines, Agent Chicago.” Flush telephones are phones where the receiver hangs on a hook which, when pressed by the weight of the receiver, ends the call. The same company would also do the wiring in the mansion, which called for rubber wiring on all the phone lines (the electric wiring was covered with canvas).

This complicated system of buzzers, telephones, bells, annunciators, and call buttons made the Barkers’ home a smart home. Like an Amazon Echo, the Barkers would press a button or pick up a phone anywhere in their home and order anything they want whether it is a meal, an outfit, a massage (they had a massage table in the master bathroom), or a grocery list. Similar to a smart home, the Barkers would call the intercom and order the house to be cooled or heated as they pleased (thanks for a complicated modern heating as well as an early cold air register) or they could have servants turn on the lights as needed. The big difference though is that the Barker’s system cost the equivalent of $40,000 to install and required ten people working around the house to meet their demands.

This system allowed the Barkers’ servants to have a high level of coordination. Many of these servants would always be at the whim of the system; a typical domestic servant in the Gilded Age worked twelve to fourteen hours per days and was on call around the clock, with the exception of Sunday afternoons. This is a historical gap I find difficult to cross. I see the buzzers and bells with great excitement, another detail in the history of the building but to really understand the system I need to get in the servants’ heads. I need to understand what this system meant to them, the what-its-like of their historical experience. The system is more than just an interesting historical parallel, it directed the lives of ten people, and hopefully, this project can get me a little closer to understanding those lives.

TJ Kalin 6.26.19



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