On October 11, 2017

“Number, please?” No longer

By Mary Ellen Shaw

Having grown up with party lines and phones without a dial, I am truly amazed by the way communication has changed. Dial phones were probably as welcome to my parents’ generation as cell phones are to mine.

But what is the history of the telephone?

Going back to 1900, there were 600,000 phones in the Bell Telephone system. Five years later, in 1905, there were 2.2 million. Go forward another five years to 1910, and there were 5.8 million. AT&T – “Ma Bell” – had a monopoly on phone service as it grew.
Who placed the first phone call? Why, it was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, of course. This happened on March 10, 1867, when he called his assistant, Thomas Watson, and said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!” Notice the formality … no first name basis between the “boss” and his assistant.

My life was never lived without access to a phone but it was a “shared experience” in the beginning. We were on a “party line.” That meant you were either on a “one ring” or “2 ring” side of the line. When you heard the ring you were assigned, you picked up the phone to receive the call.

If you were on the nosey side, you could listen in on the calls that occurred on your party line. I don’t think most people actually did that, but I often picked up the phone to place a call and heard another party talking. The other party could tell you had picked up the phone and also could hear the click as you hung up. If you did that enough times, they finally decided they might as well hang up!

According to statistics, dial phones were introduced in the 1920s but it took about 20 years to perfect them. Apparently either Rutland or my parents were somewhat behind the times, as operators were still placing calls I made from home to my friends back in the early to mid 50s.

TouchTone® phones came out in the 1960s, but our home still had a rotary dial for quite awhile after that. You didn’t own your phones back then. You paid for them as part of your monthly bill. The installer arrived at your house with the phone you ordered and it was picked up when service was discontinued. I had the “privilege” of finding a pink telephone under our Christmas tree when I was 16. A relative, who worked for New England Telephone, was able to convince a “higher-up” to let her take the pink phone so my parents could wrap it up and surprise me.

The style of phones probably had the biggest change in the 50s and 60s when the Trimline® and Princess® phones became popular. Both styles came in a variety of colors and had a lighted dial. They fit nicely on a nightstand and if you needed to make a call without turning on a light, these were the answer!

I worked in the business office of New England Telephone when I was in my 20s and by the 1970s our office had a “Phone Store.” It was strategically located in the front of the building so everyone walked by it when they came in to place an order or pay a bill. Good marketing strategy! There were several model phones available for purchase. A popular choice was the candlestick phone, resembling a style that had been popular in homes until the 40s. If you wanted a phone that was a little quirky and unique you could choose the Mickey Mouse phone.

Back “in the day” if you weren’t home, you missed phone calls, as nobody had answering machines. Although the first answering machine appeared in the late 1800s, they did not become a fixture in most homes until the 1970s. They had a cassette tape that recorded messages.

Did you know who was calling you in the early days? Absolutely not! Every call was a surprise until Caller ID became a feature on landline phones in the 1980s.

During my Ma Bell days in the 70s, I remember businesses were anxious for Rutland to be included in the mobile phone network. It was available in the Burlington area and down as far as Middlebury. Eventually Rutland had this option. Modern day businesses would not want to give up their cell phones for that setup!

Fast forward to current days and just about everyone has a cell phone and is in constant contact with one another. I have a Tracfone® from 2003 that my husband and I carry with us when we travel. It has limited minutes and doesn’t do any of the things that can be done on our friends’ phones. We can’t take pictures, email, text, or browse the internet. We don’t feel the need to do those things when we leave our house. Call us “old school” but being able to reach 911 if needed is sufficient for us at the moment.

If we ever “look forward” and update our phone, there could be a column devoted to my frustration as I try to figure out the darn thing. Stay tuned!

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