Throwing Out Six Telephones

Telephone 03

I just threw away six telephones. I cannot believe that I really did that, but yes I really did. So why is this bothering me?

My Granddad lived to almost 101 years old. I enjoyed the occasional conversation I had with him in his final years, and one of my favorite topics was exploring some of his early memories.

He was born in 1894 in a small town in Massachusetts. One thing he remembered as a small child was the first telephone coming to town. It was installed in the town’s general store and he recalls being quite sure that the whole thing was a hoax. There simply had to be someone standing on the other side of the wall talking back at the user. But it was not a hoax, as we are all well aware.

Telephone 01

As a kid I can recall my mother being quite proud of the fact that we had a private line. As opposed to a party line, where (this is for the benefit of you young readers) up to four families shared one line so you didn’t always get to use the phone whenever you wanted to. She was also proud that we had an extension – in other words, we had two telephones in the house! Each of which had been hard-wired into the wall by a unionized employee of General Telephone Company.

Every telephone call was kind of a mystery. When it rang, you answered. At least it worked that way in my house. If you were far away from the phone you ran to answer it and hoped you got there before the ringing stopped. Because you had no way to know who was calling. It could be a friend or relative with important news. It could be Dave King on WANE-TV’s Dialing for Dollars. Maybe the reason we never won money from Dave King was because someone didn’t make it to the phone on time.

I recall howling with laughter the first time someone pointed out to me that our telephone book had a listing for General Telephone Company under the letter “F”. For Fone Company, of course. I am not kidding – I wish I had kept one of those books.

When I got to a college dorm one telephone had to serve two rooms – it was mounted in a swiveling cylinder in the wall so each side could access it. We each had to sign up for a personal long distance plan. My roommate once turned ashen when he opened his long distance bill. He had gotten into what he would call “telephone liquor” and had run up a bill of over $100. Which was a *lot* of money in 1978. “They’re going to kill me” was repeated several times. “They” (his parents) did not because they never found out.

When renting my first apartment in college we still had to go to the phone company to get one of their Western Electric telephones (which, fortunately, we could plug into the wall ourselves). They had stopped charging extra for colors.

About three years later we were allowed to buy our own telephones. I recall going to Target and picking one out. It was a cheap basic one and cost me $7.99. I don’t know why I remember this – probably because I was sort of amazed at the time that I was actually allowed to buy my own personal telephone.

Which did not help when you were out somewhere, which is why we were always advised by our elders to keep change in our pockets in case it was necessary to make a call from a pay phone. Something that was found everywhere back then. Until you really needed one, in which case they were all an impossibly long walk away.

I got out of law school and bought a good telephone – a fancy one with several programmable auto-dial buttons. Which was a great feature. Until you bumped the wrong one by mistake, because it led to a really awkward situation. Was it best to confess that you had not meant to call the friend or relative who answered? Or was it better to scramble to come up with a reason to talk to them and thus pretend that you had intended to call them all along? I never did figure that one out.

Long distance remained a big deal. Every month my office would pass the phone bill around and each of us had to identify a case to bill every call to, or to claim it as a personal expense and reimburse the firm.

Telephone 02

In the early 1990s I lived next door to a couple in their mid 90’s. One day I was talking to Curley over the fence between our yards, quite some distance back from our houses. During our conversation we heard his wife loudly call “CLARENCE!” He turned around and yelled “WHAT IS IT!” The reply came back “ITS THE TELEPHONE!” I felt like a pretty high priority when he yelled back to the house “TELL ‘EM I’LL CALL ‘EM BACK!” But then came the trump card: “IT’S LONG DISTANCE!” Curley looked at me with a look of resignation as he yelled “I’M COMING!”

It was around that time that I signed up for one of those prestigious gadgets that would allow me to make calls from my car or be able to summon help in case of an emergency. The handheld ones were so much more convenient than those mounted in the car or that you carried around in a bag. See – not being an early adopter has its benefits. But in any case, it was something for only occasional personal use because it was outrageously expensive if you made too many calls. There was, of course, no way these things could ever replace a real telephone.

But I was wrong about that last part, and in the last couple of months I have cut all of our telephone cords and lived the life of a millennial by relying solely on my cell phone. Really, the idea that everyone has a personal telephone that they carry with them all the time still seems as magical to me as the big one in the town store did to my grandfather. Although I know that there isn’t someone standing on the other side of a wall doing the talking.

With no calls coming in, Mrs. JP made the rational suggestion that there was no reason to have telephones sitting around everywhere. And she was right, of course. So I gathered them up and unceremoniously threw them in the trash. Truly, it was as big of a moment in my life as buying that first telephone for $7.99 at Target in 1983. Except that the telephones I threw out cost a heckuvalot more than $7.99.

So here I am, with nary a wired telephone anywhere in my house. But . . . if you promise to not tell Mrs. JP, I will let you in on a little backup plan that I have in the event of an apocalyptic rush back to the old-style Fone Company. Somewhere down in my basement I am certain that my little white $7.99 Target phone is still there, just waiting to be plugged in. Just in case.

Photo Credit – Western Electric Model 500 rotary dial desk phone from the Flickr page of Joe Haupt promoting a vintage telephone to be sold at auction.

Along with vintage advertising from the Bell Telephone System.

29 thoughts on “Throwing Out Six Telephones

  1. Throwing out those telephones must have felt really weird.

    I’m old enough to remember my grandparent’s having a party line and the near-hermit neighbor eavesdropping on the conversations. I’m also old enough to remember when Bell Telephone allowed purchase of your existing phone in lieu of continued rental.

    Your reduction in phones is admirable. Casa de Jason is still in the days of land lines and no personal cell phone. Seriously. We still have my grandparent’s old telephone in use downstairs. I carry an iPhone but it is a work phone, not mine.

    But hold onto that Target phone. You just never know…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had a friend whose mother kept a party line long after the phone company stopped offering them. She understood that she was paying for a party line but getting a private line. After several years someone from the company called her and said “Uhhhm, we’re not going to do this anymore.”

      I think we had the discussion before that your old Western Electric phone was probably manufactured in Indianapolis. I the guy in my neighborhood from whom I bought my old Cadillac years ago had been a Western Electric exec.

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  2. The Bell ads are priceless, especially with their dated assumptions (Mom in the kitchen, “…ask your telephone man”). My dad installed a second line in our house in the mid-’70’s – a “kid’s line” for my brothers and I so he could charge us for all the calls to our girlfriends. My wife and I still cling to our landline today, as we live in a rural area where the AT&T wireless bars are never better than two out of four. If we ever get a stronger signal, we’ll take your lead and get “unattached”.

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    • Haha – I *love* your father’s approach! That is some championship Dadding right there!

      Mrs. JP has just reminded me that she was suggesting the same thing when our three kids were in the prime phone-hog years. This may have also been when dial-up internet was another usage problem. I think we nixed the idea because we assumed that we would be the ones paying for it. Where were you when I needed you? 🙂

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  3. The quality of this [and other] articles is as good or better than similar op/ed columns which appear in major magazines and newspapers. This is especially true now that Top Talent like Andy Rooney and Dave Barry are no longer around. The internet has “democratized” talent, and we are all better off–which is why I no longer subscribe to any magazines or newspapers. Ex.: Curbside Classic is far more interesting than typical car magazines–and like this blog, it’s interactive. Also, I now mostly watch things on YouTube instead of broadcast TV.

    So maybe I’ll throw out my TV. The old 4:3 aspect ratio is incompatible with the modern broadcast signal, and it cuts the edges off. I’ll keep driving my ’58 Cadillac though, as long as “the system” still lets me. I don’t want to throw that out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good Heavens, thank you for the generous compliment!

      Yes, the 4:3 thing would be a problem. I loaded up 3 CRT TVs about a year ago and had to pay a recycling center to take them. The 32 incher was no fun! Yes, keep that Cadillac!

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  4. The telephone I remember best was my grandmother’s. It sat on a little telephone table in a corner of her dining room. To its right was a little address card holder whose metal top popped open with a spring. As a child, I found it fascinating.

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    • Yes, and how when you talked on the telephone you did it from one particular place. When I talked to my grandma on the telephone it was easy to envision her sitting at her little desk where the phone sat. And she had one of those metal flip-up things too. It seemed so much cooler than the rolodex that my mother used.

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  5. In my recent TV appearance, I talk about how everyday communication technology advances, and how it changes people. It’s viewable on YouTube, in case anybody wants to see it:

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very interesting interview. You touched on the changes in accents and manners of speech, which is something I find fascinating. With mass media getting deeper and deeper into people during childhood, everyone is starting to sound like they are from central Illinois. Your younger interviewer, for example, has much less of a regional accent than you do, and yours is much less than those I heard from people of my parents’ generation. I love east coast accents in their many variations, btw.

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  6. I still have 2 landlines & have 6 phones around my house. I still haven’t had a cell phone yet. We still have the phone that we first had when my family moved into our house 55 yrs. ago. It’s exactly the same as the black phone on top of your post, although it’s disconnected & is now in the cellar.

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    • I resisted the urge to go totally cordless for quite awhile, but finally did as we simply weren’t using the old ones. Out of six phones, there was only one that had been used in probably the last 3 years. And most of that use had been as a quick and easy way to see if there was an external internet connection to the house.

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  7. This post brings back so many memories. My parents had a party line on the farm when I was growing up. One long ring and two short was our signal to pick up. The gossipy old ladies down the road could be counted on to listen in, so you had to be careful with what was said. It was one of those big black things which sat on the same telephone desk in the dining room forever. My mother still has the same phone number, almost 70 years later, although we have both changed from Bell to Cogeco bundling. While a student living in residence in the mid-to late 70’s I only spoke to my parents once a week, on Sundays evenings they would call and the porter would buzz your room and you would have to run down the hall to the only phone booth on the floor. You didn’t stay on more than 15 minutes as it was long-distance, which was expensive then, but rates were cheaper on Sundays, esp after 6pm. As a department head, I remember having to go over the hospitals phone bill list at work in the 80’s and initial the calls I had made – this was done to discourage people from making long distance calls on work time. I was also given a Bell phone card, like a credit card, as it was long distance for me to call in if I needed to after-hours. I still have my landline, as I am not someone who carries my cell phone around with me at home. It’s in my purse, upstairs and usually only used for emergencies. I consider it a necessary evil, although I do text on it occasionally, but I can neglect it for days. I prefer the landline for voice mails as I can see the red light flashing, and the caller ID. Having had the same unlisted number for decades I seldom get telemarketers either, which is a problem with the cell phone, which is only a $100 phone card burner phone. I had a phone appointment with a doctor yesterday, and couldn’t download the virtual visit app from the Ministry of Health, as I don’t even have a data plan on the phone, as I had cancelled it when I retired as it was a waste of $50/month. I may have to reconsider that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • PS. If you watched Downton Abbey – set in the 1910-20 era…you might recall the episode where they have the new telephones installed, and the butler practiced answering it! How fascinating to have had those conversations with your grandfather. My grandmother was born in 1896 and lived to be 96yrs old and I never thought to ask her those kinds of questions – about telephones and motor cars and WW1 and the Spanish flu etc.

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    • I had forgotten all about the long distance lower rates after 6 on Sundays – that was when I made a weekly call to my mother. I was wondering to myself the other day about how there seems to be no set time when any of our kids call – and of course not, when it cost the same any time of the day or evening. I remember getting the office long distance card too.

      I recall being momentarily taken aback when there were no phones in dorm rooms anymore – but of course not when every college kid has a cell phone and has no need for a hardwired phone in the room.

      And this led to another memory – when you called someone’s house you never knew who was going to pick up. When calling my best friend, it was my habit to ask “Is Dan there?” When his father answered, he took great delight in answering “Yes” and then letting the silence draw out as long as it took me to ask the follow-up question of “May I talk to him?”

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  8. This was a telephone memory lane to which I could fully relate.
    We held onto our landline for quite a while—under the “Target phone in the basement” premise. And then came Hurricane Sandy, and as Verizon was working in the neighborhood, they made the unilateral decision to cut our wiring, which they had apparently tired of servicing. So then we got cable, but that phone is merely our scam-attractor; anyone who really wants to reach us calls our cells.
    Ma Bell must be astonished by these cordless, autonomous wonders—as am I.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We discovered the same thing – nobody who knows us called us on the hardline. The calls we did get were all either asking us to take surveys, asking us for money or threatening us with immediate arrest because of some imaginary unpaid bill. I figured we had better get rid of it before we got old enough to start believing everything that every caller told us. 🙂

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      • A worthy thought. I once attended a meeting with state AGs to develop a network to help older people avoid falling for phone scams. A number of the AGs reported people got “taken” numerous times!

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  9. I had a chuckle and a few memories came to mind while reading this JP.

    We had a party line and a nosy neighbor whom my mom said would listen in on the other’s phone calls. I was not really old enough to remember that “old biddy” which is what my mom called Mrs. Wilson and she must have found a new hobby, or moved, as I only remember the complaints about her when I was young.

    I was always told to keep dimes tucked away somewhere in my wallet if I went somewhere and got into trouble … the extra dimes were in case I was nervous and fumbled and dropped one or more of the dimes. I have written about that before in my blog a couple of times because that was one of my mother’s “Momisms” and words of advice and I carried those dimes in a folded-up and taped-shut piece of paper until I finally got a cellphone.

    I never use my cellphone and it is just for emergencies, but I remember the attorney at the office in the early 90s getting a portable phone. I think that’s what he called it at that time. We all gathered around him with as much excitement as if he was Alexander Graham Bell and explaining the workings of the original telephone. He was a busy litigator, but also an avid golfer and he was all puffed up with importance about how he could take it on the golf course and never miss a call from a client. The phone was in a little suitcase and it was cradled inside to keep it safe and not get jostled around. He opened the case, demonstrated its use while we were wide-eyed and mouths gaping and this was the entire office, from the runner to the senior partner! Makes me smile thinking about it … I can remember like it was yesterday.

    This house is done in Early American – for many years there has been a wooden box on the kitchen wall designed to look like one of the earliest telephones and up until about 15 years ago there was a wall rotary dial phone, like you pictured in yellow above, inside the box. The phone cabinet was always shut and hooked with a small latch. If the phone rang (and of course we answered it – never had an answering machine in this house ever, still don’t) you had to flip open the latch and swing open the door and answer the phone. Anyone who called to our house knew to let the phone ring many times because of this phone cabinet. When my mother got older, it was getting difficult for her to spring out a kitchen chair to answer the phone even with the ringing extra times. I bought her a rechargeable phone but the phone lost its charge halfway through the day, and she was hard of hearing, so a cellphone wouldn’t do, so she decided we should get a new phone port put in, and yes by a unionized AT&T serviceman. He would have to put in the port and then we could have a small phone on the kitchen table. When the AT&T serviceman was dispatched to our house, he was young – very young and my mom told me at dinner that night that he had never seen a rotary phone before, let alone a rotary phone on the wall. He went on about it, so I guess we were a bit of a novelty. We kept it for the longest time, because we had friends of the family moved out of the country and they’d call and my mom and I could both get on the line at the same time, albeit just about five or six feet away from one another so we couldn’t speak at the same time, but we could both listen. The cabinet is still there now, just empty as the rotary phone finally developed problems after 40+ years of service .

    When we visited my grandmother in Toronto, once we got back in the house, we’d call her house and ring three times and hang up – our “signal” that we arrived home safely. For that call, we didn’t wait until after 7:00 p.m. when it was cheaper, but for other calls, every Wednesday at 7:01 p.m., my mom would call my grandmother – the rates were always cheaper then.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have enjoyed reading all of the memories this post has dredged up. Your mention of the rotary phones made me smile, remembering a young nephew who needed to use a phone at my mother in law’s house some time back in the 90s. She took him to a room where there was an old rotary phone. He just stared at it, then started gingerly pressing the numbers in the dial holes. It was a wake up call for me, that things I took for granted were totally unknown to kids his age.

      But we here are still young because nobody has yet brought up the old named exchanges with 5 digits after them. My recently decommissioned number would have begun with CLifford, I believe.

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      • JP – I like when I write a post about something from years ago and it causes people to muse and react – it is fun. I thought about mentioning the exchange, but I had written such a long comment, that I decided not to, but I’ll do it now.

        When I was very young, probably even before kindergarten, my parents told me that if I ever got into trouble, or only if a policeman asked, I was to give them my name, address and phone number (Valley 7-3219) … these days, I may forget what I went downstairs for, but I can picture myself rattling off that info, like a soldier would give his name/rank and serial number. 🙂 My parents were adamant that I knew that info and could recite it.. Here in Michigan we had Dunkirk as our exchange here in my city. I can picture it was on the middle of the rotary dial, i.e. DU——-. Thanks for a fun look back – we need a few laughs these days.

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  10. I remember having one phone in the house when I was a youngster. No extension phones for us, so every time the phone rang, my sister or I would rush to answer. The cord wasn’t long enough to allow privacy, and the rule was no call longer than ten minutes or so. Someone might be trying to call my parents, which was much more important than anything I had to say to my friends.

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    • Yes, there was nothing worse than expecting that someone might call and having a family member hogging the line. Funny how it’s only “hogging” when it is someone else doing it. 🙂

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  11. We still have a landline, because the cell coverage at our house is poor, though now that the cell carrier enables use of the home WiFi for voice calling with the cell phones it’s a moot point. And neither of our cell phones have local area codes, so if I’m making a bunch of local calls, I sometimes use one of our two cordless landline phones. We do have a third phone though, a Western Electric dial desk phone that came from my parents’ house. My sister has the matching rotary wall phone in her kitchen. Aside from being somewhat of a novelty now, it will work in a power outage, though I suppose a disaster big enough to bring down the cellular system may do the same to the landlines. I’m not sure how old it is … ABS plastic, not Bakelite, and with a clear plastic dial, but I think converted to a modular jack by “the phone company” and then bought from the phone company. So perhaps from the sixties. Most calls we receive in the landline number are spam, but occasionally our daughter calls that number since she still remembers that we had poor cell coverage here.

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    • I would bet that your old Western Electric phone may have been made in Indianapolis – they had a big plant here that did just that. The poles and wires may not make it, but I would bet that those old Western Electric phones could survive a nuclear winter during a zombie apocalypse. I watched my mother occasionally slam that receiver down with all the strength she could muster and the phone never got a scratch.

      Which makes me wonder if our telephones (supplied by General Telephone Company and not one of the Bells) used Western Electric phones or if there was another manufacturer out there that supplied the non-Bell companies.

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  12. I don’t know why, but we still keep our land line. My husband and I each have a cell phone and no one ever calls on the land line except telemarketers, of course. It was fun walking down memory lane through your piece, though. I remember the milestone of having my own phone and separate line installed in my bedroom when I got my first job at 17. It was a sleek, red, modern-looking model called Contempra. Reading your post also made me realize that just about all phones are black now. That must be why we girls buy cases for our cell phones that add a dash of color and make it a “fashion accessory”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I could only dream of my own phone when I was 17, let alone a separate line. My sister and I would irritate each other by occasionally listening to the other’s phone calls on the other phone when we were bored. We both got pretty good at hearing the “click” when someone else would pick up. 🙂

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