Back in pioneer days, a knock at the door meant a friend or neighbor was coming to visit. In the late 1800s with the advent of electricity, new electric doorbells were increasingly used to signal when someone was at the door.
In 1903, the Van Orden mansion in Baraboo was built with a state-of-the-art automatic announcer consisting of a wooden “call box” with small arrows behind a glass plate. Each arrow was labeled to correspond with a section of the house or an external door. A bell was also part of the system. When someone pressed one of the buttons beside an entry door or inside the house, it would send a signal to the announcer, ringing the bell. The corresponding arrow would turn from horizontal to vertical to show which button had been pushed and where a staff person was needed. There was a pushbutton on the floor, under the dining room table, which rang the bell and moved the arrow in the kitchen, signaling the maids that the next course should be served.
These systems were usually located in the kitchen so that house maids could be summoned to answer a door or assist a family member.
Another convenience built into the Van Orden mansion was speaking tubes, an early form of intercom. These tubes were placed in the walls during construction with openings in the kitchen, maid’s bedroom and upstairs hall. They consisted of pipes which connected the various locations. The speaking tubes facilitated conversation between floors of the house. To signal that you wished to talk to someone, a button was located near the speaking tube, which rang a bell at another location.
The 1903 Van Orden Mansion had other “modern” conveniences, such as a thermostat for the furnace which had a clock timer attached. The kitchen sink had faucets with hot and cold running water, and a third faucet which supplied cistern water. Also, many of the lights were a combination of electric and gas. These devices were not only convenient for the Van Ordens’ needs, but also great showpieces for guests who came to visit.