M975.62.561 | The telephones booming

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The telephones booming
James Weston
1880, 19th century
Ink on paper
19.8 x 11.6 cm
Gift of Mr. Charles deVolpi
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Cityscape (3948) , Print (10661) , streetscape (1737)
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Keys to History

A Controversial Subject

In the late 19th century, power, telegraph and telephone poles and wires seemed to be taking over the city and countryside. Officials and the general public alike decried the massive spider's webs of wires. A major public debate on these eyesores was raging in cities. Many municipalities took the public utilities to task over the invasion of the public thoroughfare by poles and wires.

Some municipalities that were particularly concerned with their landscapes required underground cabling or stringing the wires through back alleys out of sight.

When you walk the streets of Canada's cities today, you can see major differences in how much of this telecommunications infrastructure is visible. In the downtown core and better residential neighbourhoods, cables are underground, while in working-class districts, poles and wires are still part of the skyline. With the advent of wireless telephony, relay towers and aerials on church steeples and other structures have been added to the communications transmission infrastructure.

  • What

    Most telephone poles are made of cheap, durable pine and can be climbed by linemen wearing spiked boots. Today, with cherry-pickers, steel or concrete poles can be used, although Bell has stuck to pine.

  • Where

    In Canadian cities, the poles and wires that cluttered the skyline were sharply criticized. Montreal architect Percy E. Nobbs said in 1910, "The telegraph, telephone and light and power poles make our main thoroughfares look like a Chinese harbour after a typhoon."

  • When

    Bell Canada began to lay its telephone cables underground in 1891.

  • Who

    In a song titled Les poteaux (The Poles), Félix Leclerc wrote: "Venice has its gondolas, Miami its palm trees, France its monuments ... We've got telephone poles."