calls per phone grew across the Great Depression

Despite the Great Depression traumatically beginning in 1929, calls per telephone grew 1%  in the U.S. from 1927 to 1932.  Across this period, gross domestic product (GDP) fell 39%, and urban prices fell 21%. Since telephone rates are regulated, they tend to be nominally sticky.  Hence the real price of telephone service almost surely rose from 1927 to 1932.  Nonetheless, the number of telephones in service fell only 6%.  Calls, most of which are not charged per call, fell 5%. [1]

The relative stability of telephone use during the Great Depression probably didn’t come from phones then being used for relatively important communication.  While only about a third of U.S. households had a telephone in the 1920s, calls per phone per day in 1927 (4.7) was only slightly below calls per phone per day in 1977 (5.1).  The share of business phones in 1927 (34%) was only slightly higher than in 1977 (25%).[2] Phone use was quite similar in 1927, 1932, and 1977. The increase in telephone calls from 1927 to 1977 came mainly from smaller households and more phones per household. Access to a phone, not the importance of calls, seems to have determined call volumes.[3]

Communication shouldn’t be expected to contract with economic contractions.  After all, misery loves company.  Bad times are a good stimulus for conversation. Complaining has unlimited possibilities for growth.  Communication beats depression.

Data: U.S. telephone call volumes, 1912-2007 (Excel version).


[1] All changes are from 1927 to 1932. Data availability determined these years; they are years of telephone censuses.

[2] The number of business telephones fell less than the number of residential telephones from 1927 to 1932.  In the Bell System, the number of business telephones actually rose 2.3% from 1927 to 1932. This evidence points to the economic importance of telephone service to businesses.  So too does more uniform business adoption of telephone service.

[3] The number of telephones per telephone household rose from about 1.15 in 1927 to 1.81 in 1977. In addition, average household size fell from 4.01 persons per household in 1930 to 2.75 persons per household in 1980.

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