North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

A technological tour of the Biltmore Estate

By Sue Clark McKendree

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Call Box

This oak cabinet holds the battery-operated servants' call system for the Biltmore Estate. (Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company. More about the photograph)

Interpreting the servants’ call system

Carefully open the doors to the cabinet. This oak cabinet contains the glass rechargeable batteries that powered the servant’s call system as well as the telephones and fire alarms, all of which operated on low-voltage systems. Please do not touch the batteries or allow students to do so. They still contain acid, and could cause serious injury if the glass were to break.

The first primitive call systems in English country homes date to the early 18th century, and consisted of a bell attached to a rope and pulley. By the end of the 18th century they had become more complex and sophisticated, with “wires [which] rose perpendicularly in tubes from the different rooms to a concealed passage in the attic…and then descended in one tube or trunk to the bells themselves, which were usually hung in a service passage in the basement.”1 In some houses bells with different tones indicated specific rooms, while at Uppark, a wire released a small wooden flap with the name of the room on it. Speaking tubes came into use in the 1840s, at the same time that the first pneumatic and electric bell systems were introduced. By the 1870s, battery-powered electric bells like those at Biltmore were thought to be the most efficient system available.2

This most complex means of communication in Biltmore House allowed guests to call the domestic staff from throughout the House. It is similar to those developed shortly after the Civil War for use in hotels which replaced the cumbersome manual systems of bell pulls, levers, wires, and bells found in earlier mansions.

“What was the first step towards real use of electricity? Batteries [or] Chemical electricity…however, batteries were not an efficient way to provide real muscle… Batteries were fine for operating household bells — doorbells, annunciators, eventually fire alarms.”3 Hatzel & Buehler, New York, installed the servants’ annunciator call system. John C. Hatzel & Joseph Buehler were master electricians at Thomas Edison’s first generating station, opened in 1882. In 1884 they left to establish what is believed to be the first electrical contracting business in New York, and continued to work together until 1911, when Buehler retired. Hatzel incorporated the business in 1917, which was still in operation as of 1991, recognized as one of the largest electrical contractors in the U.S.4 Archival correspondence to Hatzel & Buehler documents the purchase of oxidized silver push-buttons and 2,000 feet of No. 16 rubber-covered bell wire in August of 1899.5

Also in 1899, the Estate directed one of its contractors to order six annunciators (call boxes) for the guest bedrooms in Biltmore House from Hatzel & Buehler.6 In September of 1901 Charles Waddell reported to Mr. Vanderbilt that “the bells from the Billiard Room and your Office to the Stable are now working…the one from your office rings on a separate wire and indicates on an annunciator in the Stable “Mr. V.”7

Call buttons

A servants’ call button station on the Biltmore Estate. Photograph courtesy of Biltmore Company.

  • 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.
  • There are at least two different kinds of wires connected to the batteries. Some can be traced to the telephone jack on the opposite wall. Others are the same wiring used in the call system. Note the tag on one of the wires that reads “Bell to Mr. George.”
  • The batteries are Sampson #2 “Great Strength — Long Life — Quality Guaranteed,” E. G. L. Company, Boston.
  • The batteries were recharged when the switch on the breaker above the cabinet was thrown to allow power to flow into them.
  • The telephones, call system and fire alarm bells all operated on a lower voltage than the lights and other electrical mechanisms in the House. Charged by the regular electrical system, the batteries then would have provided the lower voltage needed for these systems which needed a less powerful, but constant and reliable source of current that would have been available especially in times of emergency, such as during a power outage.

Transition

Explain that the group will now learn more about the freight elevator.