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    Auction Finds

    A servants’ call box in need of some TLC

    When I first saw the roughly painted wooden box, I thought it was a clock. It had the stylized hands of the antique Seth Thomas and Ansonia pendulum clocks that turn up often at auction.

    But this white box had no dial, no holes for winding and very few digits. It was obviously not a clock, but what was it? Someone at the auction house had laid it flat on its back to keep a few errant metal pieces from dropping to the floor and disappearing. So, the box needed some work, although I could not clearly see from where the small pieces had dislodged.

    I didn’t linger long to figure it out. Instead, I continued my preview of items up for auction and summarily forgot about it.

    servants' call box

    An up-close view of the servants’ call box. The panel at the top is misaligned.

    It took some time before the box came up for bids, and when it finally did, I paid close attention. As the auctioneer picked it up and examined it, he announced that he wasn’t even sure what it was. But like most auctioneers, he guessed. It may be a butler’s call box, he said, and I realized that he could be right.

    There was no tit-for-tat bidding for ownership of the box – how many of us can afford a butler these days – and it sold for $12.50. But the price of the call box was not as interesting to me as its function.

    Servants’ call boxes – or “annunciators,” as they were called – were pretty prevalent during the Victorian era and into the early 20th century. As you might expect, you could find them in the homes of the wealthy to summon their maids, butlers and other servants.

    servants' call box

    A full view of the servants’ call box with its numbers for various rooms.

    The boxes were usually in or near the kitchen, where servants stayed out of the sight of their Downton Abbey-type employers. Some of the ones I found on the web bore the names of various rooms in the house, as in this one at the Bacon Memorial District Library in Wyandotte, MI. The library is in a mansion built in 1897 by a wealthy businessman and donated by his descendants in the 1940s. It was a large house, 27 rooms, and it certainly had to contain call buttons in the rooms and call boxes in servants’ spaces to direct them to where they were needed or wanted.

    Another such place was the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, built around the same time by one of the country’s most wealthiest men and now a tourist attraction. Its battery-operated system also served the telephones and fire alarms in the house.

    According to the Biltmore Estate website, the first call systems were installed in country homes in England during the early 18th century, and were basically a rope and pulley that rang a bell. Then came speaking tubes (which allowed for communication between rooms) in the 1840s, followed in the 1870s by call boxes like the one used at the Biltmore Estate.

    servants' call box

    The back of the servants’ call box shows its original wood.

    Apparently, hotels had started using a similar system after the Civil War. Here’s how the system worked at the Biltmore:

    “The push of a call button located in one of the public areas of Biltmore House completed a low-voltage circuit in the call boxes found in servants’ work areas throughout the house. The resulting current activated bells and raised small arrows that pointed to the room from which the call originated. The arrows were reset by rotating the metal handles or wooden knobs at the bottoms of the call boxes.”

    The call box at auction was not as classy as the home boxes I saw on the web. It may have been better-looking in its heyday. The back revealed natural wood and the inside appeared to be oak. Inside was a red label with the words “Bat-Tran. P.&W. Annunciator.” It apparently could run on batteries or with a transformer. The box did not have the names of specific rooms in a house, only numbers.

    A day after the auction, I bumped into the buyer at a flea market and instantly recognized the call box on his table. He’d known what it was when he saw it at auction, he said, and had seen others in much better shape sell for more. No one was interested in it on his table, he said – probably because they did not like its appearance or they didn’t know what it was or how to use it. He indicated that he was not inclined to remove the white paint and spruce it up.

    Here are some servants’ call boxes, bells and pulls – which were selling for big prices on a British site. I found a few that had sold on auction sites, the most recent was $60 and it showed as much age and wear as the one at auction. The prices on eBay ranged from around $44 to more than $500 for boxes in their natural state.

     

    servants' call box

    An up-close view of the inside of the servants’ call box.

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