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Thursday, April 30, 2015
History ... Photo ...

If you are under the age of 30, maybe even 35, you probably don’t know why the telephone poles in this picture have red and white painted bands around them. Unless you are a real local trivia fan (or maybe when you were around 7 or 8, you were very curious about your neighborhood), you probably wouldn’t even notice them as you drive down the road (in this case, Grove Street in Montclair, NJ). And even if you did, you probably wouldn’t ask yourself, hmmm, why are there poles with red and white paint on them every quarter mile or so?

But now that I’ve made you think about it . . . here’s the answer. Once upon a time, most urban and suburban town of any appreciable population density had fire alarm boxes spread throughout the town. Every box had an individual number, and was electrically wired into a central location at the town’s main fire station. So, if a fire were to break out and a citizen walking down the street happened to see it, they could run to the corner and push or pull on a little button in the firebox that would send an electrical signal alerting the police and fire department that they should get out to the vicinity of the fire box, on the double.

Now you might ask, with all the telephones out there, even if you go back a decade or so when pocket phones weren’t yet universal, why were these street fireboxes needed? Wouldn’t it be better to wait for someone to call and explain the situation? And wouldn’t it be tempting for wrong-doers to push the alarm button as a false alarm, given that probably no one could see or trace it back to you? That’s all true. But once upon a time, telephones were NOT all over the place. Before 1950, not every household had one. Up to the end of World War 2, telephones were an expensive luxury, mostly used by the bigger businesses and affluent families.

Obviously then, these fireboxes go way back to the early part of the 20th Century, when you couldn’t count on a telephone being available if a building suddenly caught fire. The thing that got most cities to invest in public firebox systems was the insurance industry. In areas that had street-corner firebox systems, building owners would get lower fire insurance rates.

In the town where I grew up, there was a firebox just a few houses away from me. Most kids I knew (including myself) wouldn’t mischievously set it off falsely, even though the temptation was great. Back then, we feared the consequences of getting caught (the chances were low, but the perceived punishment potential was high). So there weren’t a lot of false alarms, although I had heard of someone doing it once or twice.

The fireboxes were tied into a fire siren system, which started blowing once a firebox was pushed. The whistles and horns could be heard all over town. They blew out a code, from which you could determine which firebox had been triggered. If you heard two whistles, a short break, and then 5 more whistles or honks, then you knew that the fire was near box 25. The town fire department gave every household a calendar every year, and on the back of the calendar was a list of all the box locations and numbers in town. Today, no more municipal fire horns or sirens — it’s considered noise pollution, I guess. But no more calendars from the fire department either.

By the late 1970s, fireboxes were on the way out. I moved into Montclair in the mid-80s, and I just vaguely remember seeing the shoebox-sized fireboxes on these poles, although I don’t think that they worked anymore. They were probably all gone by 1990. But the red and white paint on the telephone poles where they were mounted has somehow lingered on in various locations.

The world changes fast now, and a lot of other things that I took for granted back then are going or gone. Mailboxes are becoming rare, along with local gas stations. Red brick factories are almost all gone from New Jersey now. Bank branches are being replaced by ATM’s and on-line banking. And growing-up is a very different experience for kids today. So, thanks for letting me indulge in some trivial memories of how things were around here, back when I was young.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:09 pm      

  1. Jim, Your disappearing/disappeared fire boxes remind me of the pay phones that have disappeared since everybody has a phone to carry around with them nowadays. (It may be obvious from this comment that I am one who barely knows how to work the phones nowadays.) I remember the day I saw a person carrying a phone and walking around with it; it rang and she walked some distance away while answering it. It was a big clunky thing. Hmmm, I tho’t: That must be the new “cell phones” they talk about.

    Now they have phones one wears on the wrist – shades of Dick Tracy! I find myself thinking that technology is going way, way too fast; people can’t keep up with it. A new thing comes out and before that is “old”, there’s a newer thing out. Somewhere in all this I also find myself wondering if people really will be interested in having pictures on a small screen that fits on the wrist. Begins to make me think things can get too small.

    Seems to me that there’s a need to absorb one “new thing” before the next new thing is brought out. Not too many years ago there were those hard discs one could slip in and out of a computer – highly convenient for keeping things. Now they are so “old” that one can’t use what’s saved on them at all any more. I also notice pictures are going the same way. One store I used to frequent for those “throwaway cameras” no longer will develop those pictures. Now what to do? I know I’ll never get to where I can figure out how to take a picture on a “throwaway phone”.

    I find myself saying, “Something’s wrong with this whole technology picture”. At some point I think people are going to have to get over the “oh wow! I’ve got the newest technological thing” and get to where one is able to absorb and use what’s currently out before it gets to be “old”.

    There’s little respect for “old” any more, no matter whether it’s things or people. It’s impossible to find a movie start who wants to be 60 or 70, to say nothing of 80! Is technology the reason there’s little respect for “old” these days? Just wondering. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 1, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

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