Looking Back

“Number, please:” the telephone

Anyone growing up in today’s world would be pretty amazed to learn what a person went through to talk on the telephone back in my youth. I am pretty sure they would not want to take a step back in time for that experience. As fond as I am of the “good ol’ days” I wouldn’t want to communicate that way again either.

In the ‘40s Rutland had an operator who placed your calls for you. You picked up the receiver and nothing happened without her saying, “Number please.” I say “her” because I never recall hearing a male voice on the other end.

We progressed from operator-handled calls to rotary dial phones by the ‘50s. However, the color remained basic black and the phones were hardwired into an outlet. They were placed in a central location in homes, such as the living room. Extension phones in bedrooms or other rooms were somewhat of a luxury. When the phone rang you hustled from whatever room you were in so you wouldn’t miss the call. There were no answering machines, and temporarily moving the phone to another part of the house was not an option, as modular cords and jacks didn’t exist.

One of the most interesting features of having a phone was the “party line.” Having a “private line” was rare. That fact meant there was absolutely no “privacy,” as we could listen to one another’s conversations. The telephone company assigned party-line accounts to homes that were close by and assigned you either “one ring” or “two rings.” It was easy to find out what your neighbors were up to–all you had to do was pick up the phone and listen in. If you were on a four-party line, two of the parties heard each other’s ring. If the parties had different sleeping habits that other ring must have been very annoying.

When I was in high school we were still on a two-party line. An elderly widow across the street was lucky–or unlucky–enough to be our other party. I remember hearing her pick up the receiver countless times to see if the line was free. Until she told us she needed to use the phone, I just kept talking. Apparently, my telephone etiquette was sorely lacking!

By the ‘60s we had a private line, and one Christmas my parents gave me a pink phone for my bedroom. I was ecstatic! Their “gift” to me allowed them to have a phone upstairs and saved them from running to the living room for every call. It was a “win-win”!

Every time the phone rang back then, you answered it. There was no screening of calls in those days. You didn’t know who was calling, as Caller-ID was non-existent. Every caller was a surprise!

My love of the telephone served me well, as I spent about 15 years working as a customer service representative for New England Telephone. The party lines came back to haunt me again when I took installation orders for the more remote areas of Vermont. People coming up from the “big city” to ski wanted phones in their second homes. They thought I was joking when I told them they would have to be on a four-party line. There was a waiting list for private lines that seemed to move forward at a snail’s pace.

The next hurdle in their installation came when I told them I needed a phone number located within 100 feet, on the same side of the road. People thought that knocking on a stranger’s door and asking for their phone number was an odd way to meet one’s neighbor!

Cell phones virtually eliminated the need for the once vital phone booth. Of course, that also meant the demise of seeing how many kids can fit inside one. I don’t remember the number from my own experience but I do recall that it was a fun adventure. “Back in the day” you could find a phone booth on busy streets and highways. Public buildings had an indoor pay phone. Most teenagers were told by their parents to be sure they had a dime or quarter (rates went up) in case they needed to call home. There may still be some pay phones in this area but I haven’t seen one in years. Since most of Vermont now has cell phone coverage, today’s skiers must cherish the ability to talk from their cars, homes and even the slopes.

Will the day come when kids won’t know what a landline phone is? In some cases it has probably already happened!

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