By Ambriel Johnson
Hearing the ring of a telephone has become a regular sound in the American household, something easily taken for granted.
However, in Mark Twain’s time, the Gilded Age, this harsh ring was out of the ordinary. Only the wealthiest of households had these new-age communication devices installed in their homes.
Fascinated with modern technology, Twain himself had a telephone in his Farmington Avenue mansion. He didn’t use the phone much, though he complained about the quality of the phone calls endlessly.
The member of the household who used the phone most was the family butler, George Griffin.
The 25-room home built for Samuel Clemens, his wife and daughters – Mark Twain was Clemens’ pen name – was a showcase.
“They were an up-to-date, sophisticated family,” said Steve Courtney, author of The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Story of the Mark Twain House in Hartford.
The Victorian Gothic Revival house features a breathtaking grand hall with decorative arts by designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, a glass walled conservatory overflowing with green plants, a cozy library, and a third floor billiard room where Clemens wrote his world-famous novels.
Tiffany supervised the interior decoration of the house and designed most of the glasswork.
Legend says the home was designed to look like a riverboat to mimic the theme in Twain’s masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter, construction began in 1873. The house rested on a large parcel of land when Twain owned it, even more than the museum owns today.
“There was a much more rural landscape then,” Courtney said.
The family moved into the house in 1874, three years after Twain decided to build a home in Hartford.
The house in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood had hot and cold running water, central heat, gas lighting and other modern conveniences common in the day.
“Any middle class home had indoor plumbing by 1874,” Courtney said, adding that gas lighting wasn’t new, either.
The Clemens family had all these things.
“In general, it was a time of tremendous change, a very dynamic time,” Courtney said.
Gas lighting, which eliminated the problem of smelly whale oil and weak lights that would damage the eyes, was popular.
“Central heating was pretty new,” said Courtney, as were the speaking tubes the Clemens had in their walls.
Family members used the speaking tubes to communicate with household staff in different parts of the house.
The telephone made communication with those outside the house easier.
Twain’s house was one of the first in Hartford to have a phone, Courtney said, and the listing for Samuel Clemens was one of the first in the local phone book.
Before people had phones, Courtney said, “To talk to someone, they would have to ride their horse downtown.”
Courtney said there were odd noises coming over the phone line, possibly because people didn’t know how to install the wiring.
Twain kept score, Courtney said, of the various noises he heard on the phone. He tallied them as “cannon fire” or “thunder” and subtracted the number of times he heard them from the balance of his phone bill.
“There were definitely things that went wrong,” Courtney said.
Courtney said Twain was always interested in inventing and once invented a game for his daughters so they could learn about British royalty.
Twain also invented a self-pasting scrapbook, Courtney said, that proved quite popular in his time.
Twain invested in items that were familiar to him, Courtney said, such as the typesetter and the Paige Compositor. Courtney said Twain lost $300,000 on the Paige Compositor.
Despite his interest in technological gadgets, Twain remained old fashioned when it came to his work.
Twain had a typewriter, Courtney said, and it made writing faster. But Twain didn’t like using it. He did have other people type his stories for him, Courtney said, but preferred writing in longhand himself.
“It was fashionable to have new and updated technology,” said Courtney, and Twain loved to keep up with the latest trends. “He was interested in fads.”
The Clemens family lived happily in their home until 1891, when mounting debt forced them to leave. In order to pay off his debt, Twain was forced to go on a lecture circuit.
Some of the family went with Twain on his circuit and others stayed elsewhere. They never lived there again.
In the 1920s, the home was sold to real-estate investor J.J. Wall and survived a number of different owners, including a boarding school for boys.
Katharine Seymour Day’s Friends of Hartford campaign ultimately saved it from demolition, restored it, and made it the popular museum that it is today.
In 1963, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.