Tuesday, January 05, 2010

A Phone From My Teens

Yup. This is what we had. It was actually fairly new-fangled, at the time, as it was made of plastic, rather than the older, heavier, bakelite. Phones were available in colours, but not at our house. One friend had a beige one.

Our phone had its own little shelf, next to the front door, with another shelf underneath for the phone book. I lived in a small town, to the phone book was about half an inch thick. All the phones in Chemainus had the same prefix.

Anyway, back to the basics. The thing was hard-wired to the wall. A huge innovation was the longer, coiled cord between the handset and the base. This permitted one to move more than three feet from that little shelf by the drafty front door.

I suppose I must say that it was actually the only phone in the house. Now, I did have a friend (who my parents considered "spoiled") who had an extension phone in her bedroom. Please notice that I said "extension phone." Not a separate line. One's illusion of privacy could be spoiled by the "click" one heard when her mom picked up the other phone. Actually, most families had but one phone. It was usually in a public part of the house, such as the kitchen or dining room.

There were rules. Kids were not allowed to talk too long. If one was on the phone too long, one's mother could very easily open the living room door and say, "For Heaven's sake, Veronica, get off the phone! You've been on there for 15 minutes!" There was no "call waiting." If somebody tried to call your house while you were on the phone, they got a busy signal and you got no indication that somebody was trying to call. The first time somebody called one's dad and said, "I tried to call you last night, John, to set up a tee time, but your line was busy," one could lose one's phone privileges for a week. There was also no Caller ID. The only way to find out who was calling was to actually, physically, pick up the phone. And people usually did. If one didn't, it would ring incessantly until the caller hung up. And besides...it could be a date for the school dance...(Hey! A girl could dream).

Long-distance calls were very expensive (charged by the minute--at variable rates, depending on the distance) and only indulged in as a rare treat, or in times of emergency. One might, for instance, call one's family in England at Christmas, after arranging it by mail, in advance, to make sure everyone would be home. Taking into account the time difference. Everyone would shout "I love you!" and "Nice talking to you!" and "Happy Christmas!" loudly enough to be heard by the neighbours on either side.

One paid a flat rate for service, which covered all local calls. Long distance calls were extra, and there were no such things as "plans," or Directory Assistance. If one needed to find a number, one looked it up in the phone book. There was no "911." If there was an emergency, one dialed the appropriate agency. Emergency numbers were printed on the inside front cover of the phone book. There were blank lines to add one's doctor, vet, etc. There were no "800" numbers. Long distance was long distance. There were no areas of shaky coverage--because there were wires. Everywhere.

What brought on this particular reminiscence is the fact that I just glanced at my new cell phone, with its keyboard and digital stuff and camera and downloadable this and that, and noticed that I needed to plug it into the charger for a bit...

...and I realized that, if somebody had shown me this phone back then, I would have had no earthly idea what it was.


  1. Love it! I still remember the phone number from my childhood, and it started with the word "Walnut" because that was the code word for the 92 exchange (WA were the letters printed on the 9 and the 2 of the phone.)
    Something we had when I was very young was a party line. Party lines were less expensive than private lines. You shared your phone service with some other neighbors. If you picked up the phone and heard someone talking, it was polite to put it back down until they were done. If you had an important call to make, it was OK to ask to interrupt the call briefly. It was all amazingly civil when I think about it now, considering what a "Peyton Place" of a neighborhood it really was.

  2. That brought back memories.

    We didn't get the phone in until the 1960s. It was in the hall by the draughty front door. I remember my father had a special phone voice. Even if he was only talking to a friend or neighbour he'd use polite, elocuted tones. I was really embarrassed for him. Makes me smile now.

  3. We had 3 or 4 and they had an intercom . Dial 11911 hang up or push down the buttone and the rest of those foams wood ring upstairs or downstairs; It mustah been a texas thing that our telephone co keeps top secret. Pourquo? they have their little secret society amongst themselves. I wish someone with energy would research that 50's through 60's deal all phones in the same house. Merci to those who may find what evaporated the free convenience. Inquiring minds need to know.

  4. Harriet, I had a friend with a very large house. I believe it had been a home for the elderly, at one point in its history. They had a phone system much as you describe, including intercoms in the out-buildings.

    Tracie, earlier in my life, we had the party line, too. In fact, when my friend Carolyn came down for a visit last Fall, we laughed about it--her family and mine were on the same line. I have a story about that, too...

  5. Nelly, in secretarial school, we were taught to speak like that on the phone...talk about self-consciousness!

  6. I remember all those things, and when I tell my kids about how phones were when I was a teenager, they look at me like I am a true relic. (Maybe I really am!)

    My family was on a "party line" with our back neighbors for many years. That meant that not only did we share our single telephone with our whole family, we shared the line with another family. That lasted until the girl of that family and I both hit our teens. Then my parents put in for a "private line" because the line was tied up too much between mine and the other girl's phone calls.

    Oh... and I was one of the "spoiled" ones. For my 17th birthday my parents surprised me with an extension phone in my room! I was the happiest teenager on the planet that day! :-)

  7. Don't worry, Stella...my parents thought any teen who owned more than two pairs of shoes was spoiled!

  8. For my 17th birthday, and high school graduation (the one followed a day after the other), I received a copy of the soundtrack to "Mary Poppins." Don't ask.

    Real big spenders, my folks. Record albums cost $4.20 at that time.

  9. lol... well I guess I wasn't too spoiled then... I only had a maximum of two pairs of shoes; one pair for play/ school, the other pair for Sunday. If I had a particularly nice pair of penny loafers they would work for both play/ school AND church! :-)

  10. I had one pair for play and the other for school/church.

    When I went to a private school in England, there were three pairs we HAD to have!

  11. Hah, I didnt have a party line. But while on a family vacation in the Poconos (which was very rural at the time)as a teenager the house we were in did. It was fun eavesdropping on people we didnt know lol.

  12. And even more fun eavesdropping on people you did know!
    Another party line kid here, from the NZ era when the phones had a crank handle and each individual number on the party line had a number based on the Morse code. Two long cranks was M (our number) and two shorts was my friend down the road (S).
    Ronni, thanks for the memories (albeit from a different part of the world).

  13. We still have one of the "newer" rotary dial phones from my husband's grandfather. I think it was circa early 1970's, since it's beige. I'd much rather have a black one; much more dignified and classic. Hey, it works when the power goes out!

    The phone in our studio apartment in the country was somehow connected to the liquor store across the street. Nobody could call us but we could call out. If if the liquor store clerk wanted to make a call, we'd hear it going on, and they could hear us! We couldn't afford phone service at the time, so we just hung up quick when we heard the click.

    If I had been allowed my own phone as a teenager, I would've gotten a Princess phone.

    Ronnie, you're right about the cellphones today being something totally alien to someone back in the "old days". Witchcraft!

  14. I remember the first hand-held calculator I ever saw. It was too big to fit in any but a coat pocket, cost over $400 (in 1973), and didn't do as much as one that fits in a credit card slot today.

  15. Your last comment reminded me of when my mom took a Business Machine class at the local high school. Everything was gargantuan and weighed a ton! That was early 70's. She always dragged me along for her night classes there and at the community college for Psychology.

  16. I remember some of those machines! I took a secretarial class in 1970...

  17. Speaking of futuristic phones, etc, I remember several years ago when the predictions for the future included "interactive TV". Well, that was just crazy talk I thought! How could a television POSSIBLY be interactive? I guess TIVO has answered that pretty well, and in it's own way, we are all interacting with a TV right now... chatting or reading the screen of this TV-like computer that can play videos, music, communicate, even make voice or video calls. It's crazy!!