Relics: Landline telephones, or how I learned to love Ma Bell
The Illinois legislature is trying to help phase out landlines, so this is a good time to talk about the relic whose descendant you may be holding in your hand at this moment: the old-school landline telephone as I knew it.
I was about five years old when my parents had a black wall phone installed over the desk that separated the kitchen from the living room. My mother was proud that I memorized the phone number instantly. The day I forget that 716 number is the day you can write “dementia” in my medical records.
As a rotary phone, even then it was becoming old-fashioned compared to the newfangled tone dialing phone introduced November 18, 1963. I felt like my folks were behind the times, but according to Wikipedia the rotary phone persisted into the 1970s with the majority of telephone subscribers.
We had a private line, but one of my new friends did not—shared “party lines” were cheaper. When I needed my dad to pick me up after a visit, the chances were good that when I picked up the phone I’d be greeted not with a dial tone but with the voice or giggles of one of the neighbors or their teenagers. If they’d heard the click and you didn’t hang up right away, you might get a wonderfully crusty suggestion that you hang up. If it seemed that they hadn’t heard the click, it was tempting to listen in—except there was going to be nothing interesting said. No Sorry, Wrong Number type opportunities on Pleasant Avenue.
When I got to college, I found the dorm house had two phone booths off the television lounge. AT&T offered phones at student rates, so somehow (I’ll never know how) I talked my parents into letting me get one. I must have been more of a talker in those days, or 34 years of business calls have soured me on phone chatting. I chose a pastel blue tone dial desk phone, which thanks to what I think was then recently introduced color-coded modular jack technology I installed myself by matching wires—one of my proudest moments. That phone went with me to my first apartment, although the phone number (which I have forgotten) didn’t.
At some point AT&T (or whichever Bell it was if after the breakup) sent a letter saying I could (or had to?) buy my phone. In the rotary days, you were a subscriber and rented your phone, but the phone company(ies) began to sell phones. I can’t remember what happened—whether I got tired of that phone or if I dropped and broke it (either is likely), and I bought a boring tan Trimline. My heart, if not my budget or my living space, really wanted an old-school cradle phone, perhaps not as fancy as this Design Line Early American model. I was stuck with the Trimline, however, and missed the solid bell ring of my first phone.
My next phone was a beige combination cordless with answering machine, so lacking in distinction that I remember mostly turning the little tape over. When I went shopping for it, I was disappointed to find the phone store was a thing of the past. Not only was the cradle phone no longer an option, but the office supply store phones were ugly and utilitarian, something more suited to a cubicle farm than a cozy home.
By the time I looked for my next and current phone, the office supply store options hadn’t changed much in style, although the color choices were more in the black, gray, and silver line. The answering “machine” is now digital. The phone docks in an upright position, so its footprint is more like that of the old candlestick telephone. It looks out of place on my Arts and Crafts-style desk. It would be more at home on the 1980s version of the USS Enterprise if the USS Enterprise had landline telephones. No one will feel nostalgic for this telephone in 50 years, and unlike cradle phones it won’t be sold on the 21st or 22nd century version of eBay or Craigslist.
At this point I have a landline telephone because I’m too lazy to switch from the DSL Internet access I’ve had for many years. I don’t use that phone often, although I still get doctor’s office reminders on that number, which I carried over from my first (shared) apartment. When I work from home, I realize how many spam/scam calls come in on that line. I can’t hear very well using it at normal volume, plus it costs an embarrassing amount of money every month. Although the Illinois rush to get rid of landlines is a problem for many, for me maybe it’s time. I’m never going to get that cradle phone after all.
(Also a relic: The sound of the landline telephone bell clanging loudly and all the household teenage zombies coming to life with a shout of “I’ll get it!” Now weird music emanates from their hand, purse, or pants pocket—that is, if they even get calls instead of texts. Remember the scene from Meet Me in St. Louis in which Warren Sheffield calls Rose long distance from New York City while the Smith family looks on and listens awkwardly? Those days are gone for good. Now it’s people on the bus or at the coffee shop or on the street corner who get to eavesdrop on your teens.)
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