When I was a child in the early 1960s, I loved chatting over the telephone. My father, whose childhood was spent in South Africa, did not share my enthusiasm for this; he kept his calls brief and to the point, and continues to do so today. I remember him telling me at least once that the telephone was designed to be used for giving short messages and for emergencies only, not for chatting. I often wondered why he had that idea.
Recently, as part of my research for a biography of my great-grandfather Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) I was leafing through some old issues of the Cape Mercury (published in King Williams Town in South Africa) dating back to 1924, when my father was a child. Almost every issue had a large advertisement giving the prices of three minute telephone calls from King Williams Town to other parts of South Africa. When I saw the prices, I began to understand my father’s feelings about telephone usage.
The same decaying newspapers that contained the telephone tariffs, also contained the daily market prices for foodstuffs and other commodities in the market at King Williams Town. These prices of everyday foodstuffs and so on put the prices of telephone calls into realistic perspective. For the same price as between 1 to 6 cabbages, sixpence, one could make a 3 minute call to nearby Peddie. The two shillings and sixpence that you might have spent on a three minute call to Port Elizabeth could have bought you any of the following: a dozen eggs; a live chicken (a good breed); a pound (454 grams) of butter; at least 33 pounds of forage for animals; or almost 100 pounds of tomatoes. In 1924, when my father was a child, telephone calls were really expensive.
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