Social Networking in the days before Facebook

Social networking is not an invention of the 21st century. Every generation of Takoma Park residents has made use of the tools at their disposal to connect with their neighbors.

You could argue that the railroad provided Takoma’s first important social network. The Baltimore & Ohio Metropolitan line, which linked the Federal City to the rural farmland to the north, opened the way for new lifestyles. 

For those gathered at the train station every morning in those early years, the daily commute turned into a network of its own. The complaints and debates mirrored what we read nowadays in our emails. The Citizens Association that evolved out of these morning gab sessions guided the civic life until well into the 1940s, ensuring schools, churches, and civic organizations would be built.

Train_at_Station001_rgb.jpg

The train station and social clubs served as important networks in early Takoma Park


With written correspondence the only alternative to face-to-face, the
railroad also served as the conduit for the postal service. Postcards
were the tweets of their day, providing the “here’s what I’m doing”
alerts to one’s friends. Today these turn-of-the-20th-century postcards
are valued as much for their folksy messages as for their iconic images
of key landmarks. TakomaClub_rgb.jpg

Personal friendships also created a bond. Many of the first settlers
already knew each other. Gilbert recruited from among his personal
friends and relatives. Many of the government workers who came,
especially those in the Department of Agriculture, brought their
co-workers with them. Though only six miles from the Capitol, Takoma
Park was remote enough to encourage neighbors to rely on each other,
further strengthening the connections. Front porches and leisurely
evenings encouraged visiting.

Once there was a critical mass of settlers, civic clubs became the
social glue. Likeminded folks came together to pursue mutual interests,
the same social dynamic that underlies much of the internet connections
today. Clubs reflected a wide range of interests and several. including
the Horticulture Club, Historical Society and the scout troops, are
still active today One of the earliest was theTakoma Club, founded in
1901. It opened a library in Takoma Hall (at the railroad junction)
that became the community gathering spot. The club used its influence
and personal connections to convince Andrew Carnegie to fund the
construction of an even grander library – the first branch library in
the District system. 

Meanwhile, Lloyd Gosern decided to print a weekly newspaper in 1921 to
spread local news. He specifically requested that neighbors keep him
informed of comings and goings, and entreated the ladies to provide
tidbits of gossip. Those reports along with his tips on how to raise
chickens, his pleas for new businesses, more parks, and a new
elementary school, as well as his questioning of the actions of city
government to properly administer funds would be at home on today’s
listservs.

Although Gosern gave up publishing in 1923, there has always been at
least one newspaper in town to keep citizens informed. The Takoma Voice
is the latest in a line that extends back to Frank Skinner’s Takoma
Enterprise and John Coffman’s Takoma Journal.

Tracking the newspaper ads through the years shows how the businesses
also took advantage of this network. Feldman’s Department Store’s
eloquent plea in 1939 Takoma Enterprise, for local residents to “shop
local” is echoed in today’s Facebook posts by local Old Takoma
merchants.  

Although phone numbers turn up in many of these ads, the city
directories of 1922 and 1933 did not include residential phone numbers.
As phones became more prevalent, they became the method of choice to
send out dinner invitations or catch up on the latest with the
neighbors. And they made life easier for teenagers to arrange Friday
night outings to Takoma Theatre or roller skating at the Fire Station.
Telephones also served another unwitting purpose when residents began
using the telephone poles as the perfect community bulletin board, a
practice that continues today even in the age of text messages.

Our social networks experienced an unusual expansion in 1963 when
Takoma Park set up a Sister City tie with Jequie, Brazil. The two
cities traded cultural ambassadors and for more than a decade, a
student from here lived in Brazil for a year, and vice versa. Dee
Ziegler was one of those exchange students, and her family has remained
in touch with the friends she made there.

All forms of social networking were called into play with the political
crises of the Sixties and Seventies when the forces intent on reshaping
the city in the name of development threatened the community fiber. In
1964, local activist Sam Abbott was alerted by a neighbor’s telephone
call that the state highway department planned to carve a freeway
through the heart of Takoma Park. He instantly activated a phone bank
that rounded up enough folks to keep the public hearing running for two
days. Those alerts were paired with an even more effective social
networking tool – leaflets passed hand to hand. Abbott crafted the
calls to action and faithful volunteers churned out copies on
mimeograph machines.

The bonds forged in battle soon sprouted new events. Musicians and
activists came together for the first folk festival and created a
tradition of gathering for live music and dance that still survives in
an era when music is often shared via YouTube.

Door to door leafletting may have been superceded by emails and tweets,
but it remains the tradition of political campaigns, when politicians
are expected to knock on doors and meet their constituents face to face.

Somwhere along 1995, social networking began its shift to cyberspace.
The Takoma Voice along with every organization in town set up a
website, listservs turned email addresses into an electronic bulletin
board, telephones were freed from their umbilical cords on their way to
becoming iPhones.

Organizations that depended on word of mouth can now run almost
entirely on the Web – whether it is Friends of Sligo Creek organizing a
garlic mustard pull,  parents registering their kids for soccer, or
PTAs advocating for more county funding.

But are we any more a community than we were before Facebook and
iPhones made it possible to have instant access to thousands of
friends, some of whom you’ve never met? If, in the midst of all the
chatter, we can find ways to channel these new social networks to
maintain our local community connections, we will have the best of both
worlds.

Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, an all-volunteer non-profit
dedicated to preserving and promoting an appreciation for the heritage
of Takoma Park MD and DC. Learn more at www.historictakoma.org.

AbbottFlyerPicket004_rgb.jpg

Through the years, newspapers and leaflets have served as key information networks for the community.

StandByTKE_rgb.jpg

 

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

.

About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.