Theodore N. Vail and the Civic Origins of Universal Service

John, Richard R.

In 1907, AT&T President Theodore N. Vail proclaimed universal service to be a key corporate goal. The following year, at Vail's prodding, AT&T popularized this goal in a major publicity effort that historian Roland Marchand has termed "the first, the most persistent, and the most celebrated of the large-scale institutional advertising campaigns of the early twentieth century." Over the course of the next decade, Vail himself explored its ramifications in a remarkable series of reports and addresses. Though historians quarrel about precisely what Vail meant by universal service, few doubt its importance. For the next three-quarters of a century, it played a major role in the firm's business strategy and was a central element of its corporate culture. Historical scholarship on universal service has been greatly influenced by the antitrust suit against AT&T that culminated in its breakup in 1984. While this work is often suggestive and revealing, it tends to be far more concerned with the consequences of universal service than with the context out of which it emerged. This paper points the discussion in a different direction.


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August 1, 2018