Musing About Telephones

Rotary Telephone 1972 Vintage
Rotary Telephone 1972 Vintage

Winnie and I added some new technology to our house this past week. We gained the first landline house telephone we’ve had since moving to Virginia. While this doesn’t sound like that much of an event, it’s gotten me to thinking about the changes in phone technology I’ve seen over the years.

Telephones in the 1960s

Way back in the 1960’s, growing up on Long Island, our telephone was the basic black box that hung on the kitchen wall. People basically had two choices of phone; a black box hanging on the wall, or a black box that sat on the table. Some people went fancy and had a gold and white or gold and black “Princess Phone” which was actually a replica of an older style phone that had been replaced by the black boxes.

All these phones had a rotary dial that you operated by sticking your finger in a hole and pushing to the phone number in sequence. If you were in a hurry, you would push to the number then use your finger to force the dial back to the start point, saving perhaps 1/2 second per number. The practice of pushing the phone dial back to the start was somehow considered “improper.”

I actually still remember my first phone number; CH9-6647, pronounced “chapel 9, 6647.” The Long Island area used (and I think still does) an alpha-numeric phone number system I’ve never seen anywhere else in the US. I had never heard of area codes; I believe everyone on ‘The Island’ at that time was on the same area code.

In the early 1970’s I started to see “decorator phones” come out. Mickey Mouse phones were way cool. Another replica style phone seemed popular – a wooden box that imitated the really old turn-of-the-century phones that everyone threw away when they upgraded to non-replica Princess Phones. But in our house, we stayed with the black-box rotary dial phone hanging on the kitchen wall.

Almost no one actually owned their own telephones back then. They were almost always leased from Ma Bell (the single national telephone company). All houses came standard with one phone jack on the wall in the kitchen. Wealthy people could add additional phone jacks and lease additional phones which were considered a great luxury. Third-party companies started selling non-Ma Bell phones in the late 1960’s, but these were considered somewhat controversial. Ma Bell claimed that using anything but their own proprietary phones would damage their phone lines and subject the owner to horrendous repair bills, etc, etc, etc.

Rural Phone Technology

When we moved upstate New York, Mom made a radical change in our phone technology; she ordered a white-box rotary dial telephone for the kitchen wall. This radical new “colored phone” cost more than a black-box.

The radical white phone balanced out our great leap back in phone service. Since we were now officially in “the country,” we could only afford a party line. Meaning, we shared one phone line with several neighbors. Whenever the phone rang we had to count the rings to see if the call was for us. Only one person on our party line at a time could use their phone. Picking up the phone allowed us to listen in on neighbor’s conversations. Picking up and hanging up caused a click on the line which indicated someone else wanted to use the phone.

This was really annoying during my long teenage phone calls to friends, when neighbors were so inconsiderate as to actually expect to use the phone after I was only on for an hour or so. Not to mention, I had to make my phone calls from the kitchen where Mom always seemed to be around fussing.

No More Pay Phone Coins

Once I was in the Navy living in barracks or aboard ship my communications revolved around public pay phones. I purchased my first telephone calling card, a SPRINT Card, at a swap meet in 1976. The telephone calling card was an exotic innovation that allowed me to call direct from any payphone without first filling the phone with coins. By this time, Mom’s home telephone service had advanced to where she once again had a private phone line.

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