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    A rotary phone that was both baffling & nostalgic

    I watched as the boy who looked to be about 8 years old stood in front of my table, puzzled at the object before him. How do you use it, he asked his mother unabashedly. He was staring at an old beige telephone with a rotary dial, one familiar to his mother and others of a certain generation but foreign to this child.

    The old Bell System phone was unlike anything he apparently had seen before, an anachronism in a time when phones in a rainbow of colors fit in your pocket or your hand or in a purse. Or if it was a landline at home, much trimmer that this truck of a phone.

    Practically all of the young children who passed my table at a flea market over the weekend stopped to look at or touch the phone. I had three vintage phones for sale – one red with glitter, a beige Touch-tone with gray keys and a beige rotary phone. The kids knew how to use the Touch-tone phones because the keys were punchable.

    rotary phone

    The dial and finger wheel on the rotary phone that baffled some young kids.

    The boy’s mother showed him how to use the phone. She placed her index finger into the plastic finger wheel, and called out her old home phone number as she dialed each number and let go. She used first the letters and then the numbers, recalling a time when phone numbers consisted of letters and numbers (this system was used from 1928 to 1958).

    Once she was finished, he playfully held the handset up to his ear. The phone was obviously not plugged into a jack, but it worked. It still had a cord attached to it and I had checked it before leaving home.

    Not long after, another boy walked up with his mother. How do you get text, he asked. Another little boy was more adventurous. He decided to dial the phone himself. He placed his finger in the wheel, twirled it to the finger stop and twirled it back without realizing that the wheel automatically returns on its own.

    rotary phone

    A full view of the rotary phone with long cord for a jack and coiled cord on handset.

    The women, it seemed, were having just as much fun remembering rotary phones as the children were in discovering them. Each of the adults were apparently from the same 1950s generation, because they all used the early letters-numbers combination from their old home phones.

    They were probably remembering the Western Electric 500 phone (used by the Bell System), which was first produced in 1949 and was the standard phone for decades. The phone largely came in basic black, but by the 1950s you could get them in different colors. Starting in the 1960s, they were starting to be pushed out by Touch-tone phones, and were well on their way out in the 1970s. The first rotary phones were introduced in the late 19th century, with the candlestick rotary making its debut in 1919.

    Here is a website with some early video showing folks how to use a rotary phone – or a phone in general. This was all new, because beforehand, people had relied on operators to complete a call.

    Touch tone phone

    A beige Touch-tone phone. These phones had largely replaced the rotary by the 1970s. This one is from 1980.

    Some members of the U.S. Senate wanted it to remain that way. They rebelled when their manual phones were replaced with rotary phones, forcing them to dial themselves rather than having a telephone operator do the work for them. In 1930, the Senate passed a resolution requiring the removal of rotary phones from Senate offices and the U.S. Capitol, and replacing them with the old manual phones. Washington Senator Clarence Dill described the problem with using the new phone:

    “In his experience, the dial phone ‘could not be more awkward than it is. One has to use both hands to dial; he must be in a position where there is good light, day or night, in order to see the number; and if he happens to turn the dial not quite far enough, then he gets a wrong connection.'”

    Younger senators wanted the dial phones, and a compromise was reached before the phones were actually removed: Senators would have a choice.

    The phones on my flea-market table drew out all sorts of memories. One woman knew the exact model numbers of each phone without turning them over. The rotary was a 500 and the beige Touch-tone a 2500.

    rotary phones

    A red and beige rotary phone with glitters. This one was seemingly hand-painted.

    She wasn’t familiar with the red and beige glitter phone. It was obviously not a regulation Bell phone; I doubt that the company made them in that color. I suspect that the previous owner painted a beige Touch-tone phone to match the decor in a room. Somebody did a professional job in painting it, one man noted. And he was right. The beige lines on the handle and around the face and bottom of the phone were clean and straight. But I found the color rather garish.

    One woman told of the frustration of making a mistake in a phone number – especially on the number 8 – and then having to re-dial. I watched as a man stood staring at the phone as his wife looked at other items on my table, him presumably remembering such a phone at an earlier time in his life. When I asked him to share the story, he laughed and moved on, trailing his wife.

    This wasn’t the first time I’d had items on a flea-market table that sparked memories. Several years ago, I had placed some S&H Green stamp booklets on a table and everyone who stopped had a story to tell about licking and gluing the stamps as children.

    The adults loved reminiscing about the rotary phone, but were not interested in buying it. A woman who looked to be in her late 20s or early 30s walked up to my table with two other friends. She was taken with the phone, haggled over the price for a few minutes and finally bought it. It was clear that she wanted it, but like most flea-market buyers, she wanted to feel that she got it at a bargain.


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