Sunday, October 20, 2013

Old Phones

It is one of those urban myths that Henry Ford said that you could have any color Model A car you wanted, as long as it is black. But for telephones 50 years ago that was true. All the phones were owned by the phone company and they were all black. Well at least all the rotary dial phones were black, there were still a few crank phones around that were made mostly of wood.

I remember seeing one on the wall at a hardware store out on a rural highway in Florida while on a trip down to our favorite state park one weekend. It reminded me of a comical face with a long nose and bell shaped eyes. While I was there, it rang and the store owner went over and answered it. He was a big man and the phone was hung too low on the wall, so he had to stoop over to talk on it. That seemed pretty inconvenient. When I asked him how he called someone without a dial, he demonstrated by turning the crank and letting me talk to the operator. I think she was a little annoyed at having to talk to a kid that really didn’t want to make a call. Her snippy attitude made me a little nervous the next few times that I needed to talk to an operator. Of course, we still needed to talk to operators even from our sleek modern black rotary dial phones in our house when we needed to make long distance calls. That was a rarity in our house because long distance cost a lot back then and most of our family was in the local calling area.

What we did have for the first few years, was party lines. A party line was an arrangement in which two or more customers were connected directly to the same local telephone circuit. Ours was a two party line although there were some across Cedar Creek at the edge of our neighborhood that were four party lines. The other house on our party line was owned by an elderly couple that lived a block from us. When somebody called them we heard a long and a short ring alternately, when someone was trying to reach us, there were two short rings. That way we could tell after the first ring if it was for us or them. We never had a problem with them listening to our conversations but the neighbor across the street had a terrible time with their party line listening to their calls. All of this was fodder for the neighborhood gossip circuit which had nothing at all to do with telephones. By time I was in high school the phone company was able to get enough circuits and exchanges up to support each home in our neighborhood with its own circuit and the party lines went into the annals of history.

Party line or not, there was only one phone in our house at the time. It was in the hallway across from the heater and our parent’s bedroom. It was easily in earshot of the living room, so there was no privacy for anyone using it. My Dad had this thing for wanting the phone available for anyone who might want to call. At that time, he was selling life insurance and sometimes a potential customer would be calling in the evening in response to a note he had left on their door. So for us, the phone was a utilitarian tool, not to be used for long conversations with our best girl.

But all that was about to change; the Princess telephone was introduced by the Bell System in 1959. It was a compact telephone designed for convenient use in the bedroom, and contained a light-up dial for use as a night-light. It was commonly advertised with the slogan "It's little...It's lovely...It lights." It wasn’t long before that big old heavy black clunker of a phone was replaced by a pretty little white Princess phone. Ours came in 1961, but it was still in the hallway, no privacy yet. In fact, there was none for me until I was in college. And even then it was not truly private. My dorm room had no phone, but there was one at a corner of the hall that could be used to call other numbers on campus. Not too good, there were 25 rooms on each floor each occupied by two teenage college boys with raging hormones who wanted to talk to their teenage girl friends in dorms across campus who also shared communal phones in their hallways. God forbid, that you were dating a girl who did not live on campus; for then you were relegated to using one of the two coin operated phones down in the lobby.

Finally, in my sophomore year, I moved to a dorm where there was a phone in my room that could be used to call any local number in town. My roommate that year was dating a girl that lived in a local apartment. So he spent very little time in our room in the evening. He was over there studying with her, or so he said. For the first time in my life I had a phone all my own and privacy. All of this happened before touch tone dialing and everyone owning their own phone, not to mention cell phones. We have come such a long way. Oh MY!

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