Is Your Telephone Ringing?

Is Your Telephone Ringing?

One of my earliest memories is of my mother sitting in the chair next to her bed and holding
the black receiver of the telephone. I heard her say, “Operator, I need “Long Distance” can you get me a Leesburg Virginia number ….” Leesburg was less than forty miles away. But it was a long distance, and
it was the operator who made all long-distance calls. If the call was far away, the operator
would call you back when she got the connection. And these calls cost money– a substantial
cost, so people thought twice about calling a loved one, even on special occasions.
When I visited my cousins’ home in Michigan in 1951, they shared a party line with two other
houses. You would listen for a single, a double, or a triple ring to know whom the call was for, meaning which house it was for. No one knew, of course, who was on the other end of the phone line. But we
always picked up to discover the answer to the mystery of who was calling. Those party lines
were fun because we could eavesdrop even though this was strictly forbidden. I don’t believe
there were any solicitors in those days. Most people had only one phone, located in the front
hall or some central place. If no one picked up the called had no option. There were no answering machines. Businesses could subscribe to a service to answer phones. But most private homes depended on messages being taken by the maid if they had one. Otherwise the caller simply had to try again later. A few people still had no phone in their houses. They went to the corner store to
make a phone call from a pay-phone booth.

Around 1952, my family very early acquired phones with more than one line. Those phones had buttons for the different lines, including a local line which we used as an intercom. My number was 23. This number has remained my lucky one. Though most phones were black up to that point, some of our phones were off-white or green, as well as black. My brother had a red phone in his room. We had 14 phones in our house, which was nearly unheard of– and excessive.
My sister, brother, and I were lucky teens with a phone in each of our rooms. I loved spending time on the phone with my friends. We had four outside lines, so, no one shouted at me to “get off the phone!” Most teens had this problem a lot. I was lucky.

Pregnant, disheveled, and smoking as
I spoke to a friend on the kitchen “wall phone.” 1962

Our phones were large and heavy and tethered to the wall. Somewhere around 1960, extension cords became available for some phones so you could move around more. But, sometimes, when someone was on the phone, that cord would stop a caller abruptly. If the user reached too far to pick up something, they reached the end of the tether. You could only move about as much as the three-foot cord would allow. These phones, called rotary phones, had circular dials. You needed to put your finger in the right hole over the correct number and slide it around until it clicked, a satisfying “click.” But it was hard on the fingers if you had a list of people to call. Some women I knew used a pencil as a tool in order to dial instead of their fingers. Eraser side down, the pencil took the brunt of the pressure of repeated dialing.

Since we were limited to a physical phone attached to a wall, phones were placed in private booths, in public spaces. There were free standing phone booths on public roads for emergencies. Later the booths were replaced with phone sets, against a wall, but not enclosed. They were less private, but perhaps safer than those individual wooden boxes we stood within to make our calls. Later these booths were made of metal with glass panels for light. If we did not know a number we could dial “0” for the operator for information. She would give us a phone number or an address, or sometimes several. If you found a nice one they might answer other questions, like recommending a place or giving directions. We could also call a special number to learn the correct time. Another number would give us a weather report. These conveniences are now built into our smart phones.

Are there any operators left? I wonder what happened to them? And phone books were so important. Where are they? We used to memorize all sorts of numbers. I knew my friends numbers, the cab company we used, our doctors number, the bank, certain stores, and many relatives. It was good mental exercise to remember all those numbers. Most of my friends still remember their old phone numbers from those days.

Robert as a baby in my lap while I talked on the phone in 1973 at my mother’s house (her plastic-covered headboard was a source of ridicule)

We had many telephones at our wonderful farm, Heathfield, where our family lived for four
decades. I always slept on the side of the bed where the phone was because I did not mind
answering, and my husband did not like to be bothered with calls. We never had a phone in any bathroom, but some people did. It was a great idea, I thought. I can remember being very
frustrated about wanting to finish curling my hair or applying makeup, but I could not
because I was on the phone. The phone would reach only a short distance unless you had a
special, long cord. We did. Then, finally, the push button phone arrived. No more dialing.

Because I was a real estate broker, I had a mobile phone attached in my car. I could call from
the car as long as there was a signal. This was not always the case in the countryside.
Although a car phone was very expensive, it saved me a lot of frustration. I did not have to
stop and find a phone to try to set up a “showing” if I had a customer in my car. If we passed a
“For sale” sign at a house that appealed to my client, I could call immediately to get details
and make an appointment. The car phone earned its keep very quickly.

In those early days, calling outside a particular area was impossible. If you lived in Fauquier County, in Loudoun County, or Washington, D.C., you could talk to others in that area but not to people in neighboring counties. The phones would not work. Then, they arranged a way of calling outside one’s own area but that incurred “roaming charges”. These were exorbitant. It was frustrating for a while until they worked out a way to switch cells and call all over the country. And it is now
free to make a long-distance call anywhere in the country. That is a huge change.

When did wireless phones come in? I cannot remember because at the time, ours were still
tethered. But those phones were a precursor to what we have today. People could now move
around and talk. Instead of standing up in the kitchen and talking on the phone attached to
the wall, they could move to another room and sit down.

Me, blue, and my sister, pink.

Then, in 2008, everyone’s lives changed. The iPhone was available, and life would never be the same. We could put our phones in our pockets, take pictures, store our calendars and address books on our phones, and use a hundred other apps. Now, we can do our banking, check on the market, or see how our stocks are doing. We can
collect a library of books on the Kindle app and also listen to audio books. We can play games. We can doodle, compose stories, or record a conversation with a friend.

These new phones can be worn on our wrists or fit into a purse, or slip into a jeans pocket. They are truly a miracle to people from my generation. For my new APPLE watch I have ordered mulitple wristbands in shades of blue and turquoise. This innovation is unbelievable, because when I was a child my father would read me the comics section of the Sunday paper. Dick Tracy had a watch which worked like a walkie talkie, but it was make-believe. NO ONE in real life had such a gaget. Now I do.
My iPhone is also a fashion statement because it is turquoise and matches everything I have. I am grateful for my cell-phone and my APPLE watch every day.

Do you have a distinctive phone? What is your favorite brand, and why? Let me know.

Copyright©. 2024 Bonnie B. Matheson

2 thoughts on “Is Your Telephone Ringing?

  1. I am not much good at the cell phone… mostly it is on silent from being in church if I remember to take it… or I forget to charge it and it is dead. But just recently a miracle occurred, I came in from snow shoveling – never once thinking to take my phone out in case I fell. I was standing in the kitchen with the phone on silent directly in front of me and I saw it light up. It was my dear friend, who had the forethought to take her phone out shoveling, calling me to say she fell in her driveway and believed she broke her arm. Her husband was out of town and I hurried over. Yes, her arm was broken…
    My lesson learned is to be better with the phone. It is an iPhone 6 and a hand me down from one of our daughters!

  2. Hi, Bonnie! The number 23 has been my lucky number for years… many many times?! And those black phones….and to think how long ago that was?!

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