Fun fact: According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 17% of U.S. adults “report some degree of hearing loss.”  And the other 83%  have likely experienced some hearing difficulties upon occasion, perhaps at a crowded restaurant or noisy event.  Today’s artifact is dedicated to those sufferers (i.e., all of us): a conversation tube, circa 1900.

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Assisted listening devices have been around for a long time; for example, the first description of an ear trumpet dates from the early 17th century.  The ear trumpet – essentially a short funnel or trumpet held to the ear – is designed to collect and amplify sound waves, in a general sense; a conversation tube works on the same principle, but facilitates one-on-one interaction.

Three varieties of hearing aids, from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Three varieties of hearing aids, from the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

 

The conversation tube creates a direct line from the hearer, who inserts the earpiece into his or her ear, and the speaker, who talks into the horn on the other end.  A long length of tube allows for a polite and comfortable distance between individuals: much more pleasant than having to shout directly into an ear trumpet from only a few inches away.  (Another fun fact: Conversation tubes are similar in design and function to monaural stethoscopes, but stethoscopes are usually shorter, as doctors don’t typically need to stand three feet away from their patients.  For more information on the differences between the forms, check out this helpful article.)

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The trumpet at one end…

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…and the earpiece at the other.

Our example consists of three feet of coiled-metal tube, covered with black wool, and a hard-rubber (complete with mold lines) earpiece and trumpet.  Though rather subdued in appearance, some thought was put into the design, with a decorative scroll-like shape to the trumpet and earpiece.  (For fancier versions, including some made of expensive materials, check out this online collection.)  After all, this wasn’t a tool to be hidden away and used in private; its very nature required the presence of at least one other person, who might judge you on your plebeian and unattractive listening device.

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This piece has no maker’s marks, and came from a collection of antique and vintage medical tools accumulated by Dr. Gilcin Meadors of Damascus and Frederick; thus, it has no known provenance or specific history.  Though it resembles some earlier examples, such as this 1860 version with wood trumpet and gutta-percha earpiece, ours is likely closer to 1900 in age.  Like last week’s fur coat, it matches descriptions found in vintage Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogs, such as this one from 1902:

These tubes are adapted to more obstinate cases of deafness, are very finely constructed throughout, lined with a peculiar spiral wire, which, although admitting of a great flexibility, keeps the tube fully distended in any position. . . . No. 20R412 Conversation Tube, highest grade, flexible mohair, tapered tube, 3 feet in length, hard rubber mountings. . . . Price: $1.65.”  (The BLS inflation calculator does not go beyond 1913, but this calculator says $1.65 in 1902 would be $43.09 in 2012.)

1902 Sears conversation tubes

From the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

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