Memories of Telephones Past


My parents kept a beige wall phone when I was growing up.  The ring could wake the dead.  Both sides of grandparents settled for basic black, one a desk phone the other fixed to their kitchen wall.  If my paternal grandparents were expecting a long distance call we all waited in the living room, reverently, as though it was God calling.  And God help you if you made any noise while my grandmother was on that phone, conversing with her relatives back in Minnesota.  Those calls were an almost holy occasion.

Their phone exchange was Fairfax, ours, on the other side of town, was Keystone.  My husband remembers their phone exchange began with Plaza, and his mother, Helen, growing up, used the famous prefix, Murray Hill in New York City.  I think that’s the same one actress, Barbara Stanwick requests in one of her old movies.

It is my understanding that many rural Americans had a phone installed before even electricity was available in vast tracts of the country.  My Minnesota relatives, for example, didn’t have an indoor toilet until the early 1960’s, yet had that telephone on a doily covered end table as early as the 1920’s.  Chum recalled that their phone on the farm had a different ring for each home connected along a party line.  He remembered that the different rings didn’t matter because everyone eavesdropped on everyone else.

Operators, or “hello girls,” as they were known, plugged connections on regional calls offering choices for long distance service.  There was “Station to Station,” which meant you talked to anyone at the number dialed.  Then came “Person to Person,” where you hailed a specific individual.  I remember dialing collect calls, which were long distance too, connected through a live operator, costing my parents a bundle if they accepted.  And they always accepted.

The telephone of yore was a mysterious device.  The phone company, AT&T held a monopoly and innovated very slowly.  I recall when the clockwise dial was replaced by gray push buttons.  Then there was the desk phone offered in green and red, as well as black and beige.  I vaguely remember “Ma-Bell,” as we irreverently referred to the company, marketing blue, white and pink “Princess Phones,”.  Geez, how sexist.

But what telephones held then, which is gone now, was a sense of mystery.  When that device rang it was a crap shoot who waited on the other end.  We could only call on land lines, and if no one answered there was no evidence of our call.  If that certain someone called me, and I missed it, well, I missed it.  We had no call waiting, no answering machines, and certainly no ‘missed call’ record.

And long distance calls were fashionable and expensive, folks largely opting to stay in touch through less expensive letters.  While Helen toured Europe from 1932-33, she had no cause to use a telephone.  If Elie wrote to her and scheduled a call, she would take it at the prescribed time at her hotel.  But calling her mother back in the states was never an option.

Public phones could be found on nearly every city block as I grew up.  Now they are as scarce as manual typewriters.  Formality, phone etiquette, the necessity of saying hello to mother’s or father’s who picked up, are all gone.  I would sit in the stairway of our house for some telephone privacy, because my family was everywhere, my brothers especially snoopy and irritating.  Even that modicum of supervision is gone for teenagers.  They can call, text, Facetime, use Facebook, stay connected all day everyday.

Perhaps the extra effort required for telephone calls gave them a higher value.  Our capacity for electronic interaction is nearly effortless today, but also somehow has cheapened a once-regarded gesture.