Telephones — My Personal History

I’m old, 75, and the telephones I’ve used have changed a lot, perhaps as much, maybe more than shoe styles. The first telephone I ever used was at my grandmother’s house, where my family lived until 1952. Her phone was black, as that was the only option, and the number was 2438. Of course, there were six other numbers, the area code and the local exchange, but back then, locally, you needed to know only the last four. We didn’t even need to dial. We picked up the phone and an operator said, “Number, please.”

My memory is not clear about this, but I believe this phone did not have a rotary dial; the only option was to pick up the phone and wait for the operator. There was no dial tone. The local operator was my mother’s best friend, Dot. I loved hearing her voice when I called someone, or, more likely, my mom did. Sometimes Dot had a minute to chat before she had to get back to work. That was the middle of the last century, so long ago.

My grandmother’s phone, maybe without the dialing circle

When my parents bought their own house, our new phone was bigger, clunkier, rotary, and I remember it being beige, probably about 1958. Our number was 0492, but by then, we needed to dial 922 first, actually WAlker 2. Area codes weren’t required, as we rarely called anyone outside of our area code. Long distance calls seemed like a big deal and we’re expensive.

My next phone memory is quite vivid. For my sixteenth birthday, in 1962, I asked for my own phone and received it! Ok, I get it now; I was really spoiled. It was a baby blue princess phone, oval and smaller than the family phone, with its own number, which I don’t remember. Rotary was still the only option . How I loved that phone and how grown-up I felt!

I have no idea when rotary was replaced with push button; funny how some transitions are easily forgotten, while others create strong memories. What I remember about the transition from rotary is that my grandmother’s phone, the first I had ever used, was still in that same house, then used by my aunt and her family. They had never chosen to switch to rotary, never mind push button, and finally, the phone company, Bell (remember Bell?) visited and took the phone, saying that phone no longer worked in the system.

Another vivid phone memory occurred in 1964. My father and I spent a month in Europe for my high school graduation gift. Yes, I know, I’ve already admitted to being spoiled. My mom’s birthday took place in the middle of the trip, so my dad and I wanted to call her. We needed to make a reservation for the time of the call with an international operator. I don’t remember the cost, but at the time, it seemed expensive and extravagant and a big deal, to call to wish her a happy birthday.

The next piece of phone history that I have to share occurred in the mid 70’s, when I moved to rural Pennsylvania with my first husband. We bought a former one-room schoolhouse in a village with about two dozen homes. When we contacted the phone company to request telephone installation, we were asked, “Four-line or eight?” Private lines were not available. I don’t remember which we chose. I think we went with with four-line. Our neighbors quickly let us know who else shared our line and that we should be prepared to have others listen to our calls. A particular ring pattern would alert us to when the call was intended for us. This phone service was incredibly inexpensive. As private lines became available and others dropped off our shared line, we ended up with a private line, with low shared-line rates!

The next significant related memory was in the mid-90’s, when I worked in technology management at Price Waterhouse. It was at the beginning of video calls, not actually involving a phone, if you can remember when they were unusual, expensive, and required advance planning. I don’t remember the occasion, but we arranged for our first video call with a west coast office, talked with folks there in wonderment that we could see each other and chat.

So, I’m at the end of anything that feels like history and up to current times. I’ve left out changing to wireless and video technology. Recent changes have made video calls ordinary. Growing up, it seemed like fantasy, science fiction. Writing this, I’m reminded that I was recently forced to replace my flip phone for a smartphone, as 3G was phased out. Reminds me of my grandmother and her old black phone!

Now, we buy new phones almost as often as we buy new shoes.

Copyright © 2022

Published by cyrein

Quaker, adventurer, wife, mom, sister, friend, special ed teacher, learner

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