Chicago Telephone Supply Co., est. 1896

Chicago Telephone Supply Co.

Museum Artifact: Wood Wall Telephone, c. 1905

Made By: Chicago Telephone Supply Co., 28 W. Washington St., Chicago, IL. Relocated to Elkhart, IN, in 1902

In the August 1900 issue of everybody’s favorite McKinley-era trade publication, Telephone Magazine, the Chicago Telephone Supply Company is referred to as “one of the oldest of independent factories, manufacturing everything that enters into the production of Chicago telephones, switchboards, and parts.”

In this case, “one of the oldest” actually meant it had an illustrious history of exactly FOUR years. These were, after all, the frontier days of the telecommunications industry. Alexander Graham Bell’s original 1876 patent on the telephone (earned with no shortage of controversy over Chicago’s Elisha Gray) had already expired by 1893, and a mad international dash had ensued, with every two-bit technician and overzealous investor trying to gain a regional foothold in the trade.

Chicago, as one might expect, became a central battleground in the telephone wars. The Western Electric MFG Co., which Elisha Gray had founded, ironically became an exclusive equipment provider for the dominant Bell Telephone System. But other companies set out to build superior switchboards and phone boxes to fill the growing non-Bell market. Just about all of these manufacturers were originally based in Chicago, and included the Automatic Electric Company, the Kellogg Switchboard and Supply Company, Stromberg-Carlson, the Swedish-American Telephone Co., and our current subject, the Chicago Telephone Supply Co.

Unlike some of its competitors, the CTS Co. wasn’t founded by experts in the field of wired communications. This was a calculated business venture, launched in 1896 by a father-and-son team of successful Iowa-born bank managers. Abington J. Briggs, a former Union soldier with the 3rd Iowa Cavalry, was still running a pair of private banks in rural Nebraska as late as 1895, with his son George, age 27, working under his wing. They had the wisdom for handling finances, and the ability to recognize a potentially lucrative opportunity when they saw it. So, after relocating to Chicago, the Briggs men partnered with local lawyer S.A. Buffington to organize the Chicago Telephone Supply Company.

[A.J. and George A. Briggs, founders of the Chicago Telephone Supply Co.]

While headquartered at 133 S. Clinton Street (briefly sharing an address with the Pelouze Scale Company), the CTS Co. also had a main factory at 28 W. Washington Street, employing about 100 workers. Unlike some of their local competitors, CTS had no affiliations with major network providers like Bell. Instead, they built phone equipment for independent networks, and sold products through indie suppliers and a rapidly growing mail order business.

By 1900, A.J. and George Briggs had turned their upstart company into a major player in the industry, with about 250 people in total employed in the Chicago area. The wisdom of the Briggs’ approach stemmed from their own lifelong knowledge of the Great Plains states, and the often-overlooked potential for the telephone market in rural areas of the country.

The Chicago Telephone Supply Company also earned a reputation for quality, as Briggs and Briggs made a point of hiring the top minds in the field, and spending the extra dollar to test and re-test any and all new technology before it could be implemented into their designs.

CTS was also one of the few phone makers that built its own magneto. The X-Men villain? No, the magnet-driven, electrical generator within the phone box (usually hand-cranked) that produced the electrical current necessary to ring the phone, light up a switchboard, and notify an operator of a call. In bigger cities, technology had evolved past the magneto by the early 1900s, but most rural lines—the CTS specialty—still needed them. To cover all the bases, the company manufactured its own switchboards, too, with the “Chicago Express” earning a sterling reputation.

By 1902, the Chicago Telephone Supply Company had managed to outgrow Chicago itself—or more accurately, they got a good deal on a massive new five-acre manufacturing space 100 miles east of the city, in Elkhart, Indiana. The Briggs family was now presented with a subsequent choice: change their respected name brand for geographical accuracy, or remain a “Chicago” company in the middle of Indiana. They opted for the latter.

In truth, even the “Chicago” telephone in our collection was built some time between 1902 and 1910—at the Elkhart plant rather than Chicago. So, in this rare case, “Made in Chicago” refers exclusively to the company rather than the actual antique.

Our CTS singlebox wall phone has suffered its share of damage over the past century. Made from either walnut or oak, the wood has been scuffed up a good bit. There was likely a protruding shelf segment in the front of the box originally (now gone), and the hand crank on the right side is absent, as well. The receiver needs repair, and the inside of the box has been mostly gutted, with that state-of-the-art magneto generator now vanished to parts unknown. We do still have the original Chicago branded transmitter and name plates, however, and the original nickel bells still ring… if you shake it.

Meanwhile, in the town of Elkhart, people might have felt confused about being the home of a proud Chicago-branded company in the early 1900s, but they quickly benefited from the arrival of the new factory, which continued to grow as Chicago Telephone Supply expanded into radio, television, and various other electronics over subsequent decades.

[The Chicago Telephone Supply Co. Works in Elkhart, Indiana, early 1900s]

In 1960, twenty years after the company stopped making phones, the corporate identity was finally updated, as the CTS Corporation was born. Today, CTS (which presumably now stands for nothing) has factories and offices in 18 cities worldwide, from Elkhart to Juarez, Mexico; Glasgow, Scotland; and Yokohama, Japan. There are also a couple locations near Chicago, where it all started, in the towns of Lisle and Bolingbrook. Not a bad legacy for a couple of Iowa bankers in the 1890s. Start a business with your dad, kid. It just might pan out.

Sources:

Telephone Magazine, Vol 15 and 16, 1900

Chicago Telephone Supply Co. Catalogue No. 43

Telephony, Vol 62, 1912

CTS Corp

15 thoughts on “Chicago Telephone Supply Co., est. 1896

  1. Hello Julia Z or anyone with an interest in purchasing our early Linemans’ Field Telephone. It is marked with a 3 inch by 1 inch brass plaque tacked to its top and reads Chicago Telephone supply Company , Elkhart Indiana USA. It’s hosing measures 7 inches long by 5 inches wide by 6 inches tall. It’s crank is in tack and operating and it comes with a leather pouch attached to its side that holds an ear phone that is stamped with L.M.E. TEL. MFG. CO. Buffalo. N. Y. There are some frayed wires wrapped in the typical cloth one would find from the 1800s attached to the ear phone and the device itself. It is in as found condition and we are able to forward images.

  2. HI James: I work at CTS (formerly Chicago Telephone & Supply Co.) and we are gathering items for our history museum. Is this still available? We would love to have this!

    1. Hi Julia,
      I have the exact phone shown in article. The phone is in excellent shape with all parts attached including shelf. There’s even a “Independent Telephone” One Cent Trade Mark Stamp (Issue of 1907) on inside of door that is for the telephone service.
      All nameplates, and stamp are pristine.

      Feel free to contact me

      Bryan

  3. Purchased a 32 inch long oak vintage phone with the word Chicago on the part you talk on into. It needs restoration. Can you help me

  4. Hi I have one of your Chicago Telephone Supply Co Elkhart Indiana USA box wall hanging Telephones that has the rotary dialer on the front at the bottom on a self like stand and it’s got the hand cranker on the right side of the box phone and then the reciever is on the left side of the phone on the side and the box phone it’s self opens from the left side to the right there’s on the inside two selfves three compartments total the top shelf is wires and wirebox second shelf is the crank motor and the third compartment on the bottom is empty it is a wall hanging box Telephone
    I’m am hoping someone can help me by telling me what year my phone is and any and all information I can get and if it’s valuable there are numbers on it as well which are 88783 the first number 8 has a slash above it and the number 3 has a slash above it also please if anyone can Email me or call me at (904)576-0599 I would be greatly appreciated very much

    1. Also on the rotary dialer it has a 43A on it
      It also has western electric company 250 W mouth piece or receiver you speak into on the front of the phone in the middle below the two bells that look like eyes at the top on the front of the phone

    1. Hello I randomly stumbled on a post that said you had a Chicago Telephone Supply sales invoice from 1919 signed by secretary Floyd C. Best. Do you still have this? Thank you very much.

    2. Hi James Crump, I am trying to reply to your Nov 3,2020 post about a 1919 Invoice and Letter from Chicago Telephone Supply. Please contact me at ghinga@juno.com if you still have it. I would be very interested in it. Thank you.

  5. I am in possession of an invoice and a personal letter to my grandfather from Chicago Telephone and Supply Co. dated Feb. 11, 1919 signed by F.C. Best, secretary. Is this something you may be interested in … ??

  6. I have one with the chicago tag on the front . Found in old barn wiuld like to know its value and who would be interested? 1902 or 05. It is all original . Bird crap all over it cleaned it with soap and water. Have not touched it otherwise,just love the way it is and was afraid to clean to good. Please tell me what i have and its value. Thank you, sincerely,Stephen C. Johnson

  7. I believe I have one of these phones. It has been in my family since it was new. I would like to talk to someone about it.

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