A rotary phone that was both baffling & nostalgic
  • It looks like a home phone but this one’s for the car
  • Old dirty and ghostly pay phones
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    A temptress in the form of a red telephone

    “Hello, hello. Is anyone there?” the man asked knowingly into the receiver. He knew that no one was on the other end, just like the other folks who had tried out the red and beige touch-tone phone. Each had picked up the receiver and placed it to their ear, as if they expected to speak to someone.

    The phone was obviously disconnected, its unattached cord lying just behind it. It had been placed near the edge of a table at the flea market, and no man, woman or child could resist picking up its receiver or for the kids punching its raised buttons.

    This red and beige phone appeared to have been spray-painted, possibly to match a room's decor.

    Unlike the man, most of the adults didn’t speak into the nothingness but just listened (one person asked if it was a direct line to the president). As they did, I wondered out loud how they’d react if someone actually spoke to them. What if I or a ventriloquist could project a voice into the phone. I thought it would be a great prank – a la Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon – but one woman showed in her reaction that she didn’t care for the idea.

    The man pulled the phone slightly away from his ear, and turned to a woman who’d walked up to the table with him. “It could be angels,” he said (I hadn’t thought of a biblical answerer). Another of his female companions had a good reply: “It says ‘Buy me, buy me,'” she said.

    A Western Electric beige touch-tone phone with a phone jack. It is still usable.

    He didn’t buy the phone. The three walked away just like everyone else, but all who tried it had a cheerful time playing around with it. The phone had that effect on people on a sunny but breezy day fit for a flea market. Its red color was perhaps the biggest draw, but the device itself was an anachronism compared to the cute slim cell phones that seemed to be glued to people’s ears or the landlines they had at home.

    I’ve come across a number of old rotary and touch-tone phones at auction. Like those, this phone was bulky and weighty, and it wasn’t  equipped to take a jack. Many of the baby boomers remembered it – and a black rotary phone on another table – from 20 and 30 years ago. One woman told of her son standing before a rotary phone stumped at how to use it.

    A Western Electric black rotary phone.

    For many of us, the phone looked pretty intuitive, but it was common in households way before the boy’s time. He was no different from the folks who had to learn how to use a rotary phone when it replaced operator calls. Here’s a YouTube video of an early film demonstrating its use.

    The kids who stopped at the table had no problem with the keys on the touch tone since they mimicked the Qwerty or touch keyboard on their cell phones.

    This phone did not appear to be the standard Western Electric device. It was red with beige trim and gold sparkly specks. It looked like someone had painted it to match a home décor. The paint was so meticulously done that not a single spot of the red overlapped onto the beige. It was so clean that one flea-market-goer wondered if it had been bought that way. I don’t think the company made phones in that color.

    An Art Deco Monophone made by the Automatic Electric Co. of Chicago. These were made between 1939 and 1950.

    The marking on the bottom indicated that it was from 1970. The touch-tone system was developed by Western Electric (the manufacturing part of AT&T) and offered by its Bell System to the public. The touch tone replaced rotary dialing (which used pulses rather than tones to connect) and was first used in 1941 in switch boards only because it was so expensive.

    By the early 1960s, AT&T had found a way to make it work in homes, showing off the first commercial touch-tone phones at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. The phones were introduced to the public in 1963 but did not gain wide use until the late 1970s and 1980s. They can still be used.

    At the flea market, a young man purchased the black rotary phone, noting that he’d been looking for one for some time to use, not collect. As someone pointed out, the phones can no longer be used with the tone system, but I found that they can be converted to tone or used with a converter unit.

    A Western Electric turquoise wall phone from the 1960s.

    Rotary phones were introduced in 1919 and became popular around the 1950s, replacing phone boxes with cranks and other devices that connected to an operator.

    Some of the phones are also bought as a collectible or for decoration. There are plenty of lovely old phones to choose from.

    Folks loved the look and quaintness of the red and beige touch-tone phone. But no one was enthralled enough with it to buy it, though.

    A Kellogg Company of Chicago phone nicknamed the "ashtray," circa 1930s. It has a manual dial.


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