Saturday, March 23, 2013

23 March 1954-79 “Vintage Telephone Fun: Seven Digit Phone Numbers, Phone Dialing, & Phone Styles”

pinkkitphone  In 1954, just one year prior to my project, the ‘dial your own’ phone system came to all of the US. While it had existed previously, many still had the old candlestick or even handset phones without a dial. You would life the receiver and a real person would say “Number Please”. Previous to this, the dialing was mainly the province of the operator.

Let’s look at this fun 1954 short teaching us about the changeover from switchboard dialing to home dialing. The film is of interest as well for her lovely dress and cute setting.

This 1949 instructional video shows the responsibility of the operator of the day. Having many homes not have the ability to dial themselves, they would hear the operators request, “Number Please” and then it was given the dialing was up to them. It is quite an interesting system.

Of course many had dial phones already by the mid 1950’s and you will see from this 1927 public service film (before Talkies were the norm) that the dial was officially being introduced in the late 1920’s for more families.  It is interesting to note here that in 1927 there were few enough phones that phone numbers were simply 5 digits long. And as aside, the callers hair is darling! And this young lady would the be grandmother’s generation to the children of the 1950’s.

I know today’s post is rather movie heavy, but these are really fun to watch, as least I believe so. This next video concerning the phone will be the 1961 short describing the new changes to be made for phone numbers. Prior to 1961 you had a telephone exchange, which was represented with two numbers then 5 digits that followed. By 1961 the ever increasing population and thus greater amount of telephones and subsequent numbers meant we were literally running out of lettered exchanges.

This short stars Peg Lynch and Alan Bunce as their famous characters Ethel & Albert. Though not much known today, they were a very popular radio show that segwayed into early TV. Because much of their TV and Radio was done live, not many recordings remain. Before I show the 1951 public service film starring the pair and the new regulation seven digit phone numbers, here is a quite intro to their TV program from 1954 featuring Sun Beam products. I actually had that exact sunbeam mixer, but two years ago hubby got me a later version (56) that has read styling and a meat grinder attachment. The coffee maker pictured, however, is on my wish list. My current percolator is nice and also from the 1950’s but these vacuum pots make great coffee. They, however, are much sought after and therefore to find them in tact with their old real rubber gaskets make them rather pricey.

Now for the fun in color 1961 Ethel and Albert informing America that we will now be the proud owners of seven digit phone numbers. The view of the house is darling as is Ethel’s outfit. I think you will like this one. And the animation is done by the team founded by disgruntled 1940’s Disney animators that did such cartoon’s in the 1950’s as Mr. Magoo.

I think it also relevant here to include one of Ethel and Albert Radio programs from the 1940’s. The show was called, “The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert” and can be heard here. Such fun.

Another aspect of telephony in the early days was dealing with party lines. Many rural places or even busy city apartment buildings had to contend with sharing a telephone line. Sometimes they were set up so a particular ring, say two long one short, was made to alert the various households on the same line who was to pick up. They would ring in all the houses or apartment that shared that line, of course. However,more often than not, the phone simply rang and you answered. Sometimes it wasn’t for you. Or you picked up to make a call and another household was on the line.

This Party line was the funny Plot Device used in that wonderful 1959 Film Pillow Talk, starring Doris Day, Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson is a playboy man about town who is always tying up the line talking to his various girls much to the chagrin of Doris Day, a busy but single decorator. This clip from the film shows the party line being used jokingly when Rock’s character, who later on pretends to be a Dallas Oil Man, has some fun with Doris’ character who still thinks the two people, The Oil Man and the Annoying Playboy, are two different people.

This film, though not available free online, is worth the money to buy or rent to watch. It is glorious colors and themes and as Doris Day’s character is a decorator we get to see some fabulous late 1950’s decor. Her Manhattan apartment is a dream in 50’s modern meets frilly single girl in the city. Enjoy this clip and then go find a way to watch this film, such fun. It amazes me NONE of the movie companies today try and recreate this sort of big color extravaganza film, they would be so surprised by the amount of viewers I bet. And even if the amount of people were less the amount of money need to shoot such a movie today compared with the over the top explosive heavy computer graphic-ed nonsense we do see today, they could make a mint! If only I owned a movie studio, a gal can dream can’t she?

Now, I will finish today’s post with a great one. You simply MUST watch this 1979 film showing the available designs for phones at the time. Each suits a particular decor. I love that the ‘scupltura’ modern phone (three phones in) is the 1979 version of Mod: A girl that looks like she was ‘down on the farm’ in her overalls and stopped off in 1985 to borrow a secretary’s blouse from the set of “Working Girl”. This was an odd changeover time from the modern styling of the mid 60’s to the more Country Spanish Colonial looks of the later 1970’s.

You will also notice that browns and yellows were the late 70’s version of the 1950’s pinks, teals, and reds. It is also interesting to note that while technology at this point is rapidly increasing the styling is getting much more old fashioned. The faster speed of the modern phone and even punch button dialing are years ahead of the 1950’s yet the looks for the new phones are old fashioned and replication of old time phones, including the candlestick (though the American Flag version would have been popular with the flag themed designs of 1976).

There was a movement in the 70’s towards ‘Country’ or Old World styling. Such shows as the Walton’s and Little House on the Prairies and the return to decorating in a very antique way was becoming popular. And really the ‘return to the soil’ was a movement of many younger people. While the hippies of the 60’s become the drugged versions of their politically aware forebears, the generation that grew up in plastic pastel modular homes were longing for real wood, and old cook stoves. Hand made baskets hanging from wood beamed ceilings replaced fluorescent light and dropped foam ceilings.

It’s too bad that the movement back to nature, which we are experiencing again in a different vein, could not have continued on and really made a change. But the 1980’s soon put a stop to that. In many ways the 1980’s was a manufactured version of the 1950’s but completely repackaged and retailed out. With no real desire for quality and form following function, as was the wont of 1950’s modernism, the 1980’s simply put quantity, surface expressions of wealth, and abundance first. The beginning of today’s retail therapy and big box store really took hold then. It is funny how things like this keep cycling throughout the modern age. I wonder, sometimes, if these patterns are simply there to keep us looking to the next thing that might make our lives better but distracting us from what could really make a change. Who knows? But enjoy these fun phone styles, they are a hoot!

Happy Homemaking.


  1. The video refers only to some Bell customers. Local telephone companies, even those associated with the larger Bell systems, changed over to dial service on their own timetables. Some local companies didn't switch until the 1970s and even the '80s. Whereas there were some communities [some large cities] that had dial service well before 1920. In recent decades we have become accustomed to things happening on a nationwide basis but that was rarely true up until just a few decades ago. For example, when my grandmother was still a little girl, standard time was not yet a reality everywhere. Your watch might have said 3:07 but your neighbor's clock might have said 3:41 and in a neighboring town a clock might have said 4:19 -- or whatever -- and all were considered correct.

  2. That's so interesting. I also found out that there are still some party and trunk lines in rural places in CA mts. It is true that we more and more think nationally and globally today.
    I did know that there were dial phones before 27 but I think more Home phones were being available in 27 thus the service announcement.
    I do know some of the old phones also had cranks that you turned to get the operator as opposed to having her available as soon as you lifted the receiver.
    And the 1954 video for Bell, wasn't it true that Bell was still the only phone company at the time? So I thought it meant nationally that the 7 digits would begin to be implemented starting then. Though I know it took some time before they reached everyone.
    I even remember when they started you having to use your area code to dial locally, at least that was true for my neck of the woods in the late 90s.

  3. In the mid-twentieth-century, AT&T had a monopoly on phone service in most parts of the U.S. through its network of Bell companies known as the Bell System.

    However, those many Bell companies were comprised of several thousands of local telephone companies. In rural areas, a local company often served several communites but large cities were often served by several companies. And the associations between those local companies and their parent companies varied considerably.

    Also, each of those local phone companies had different capabilities. Meaning the local companies could not offer services that their equipment could not handle. And remember, those local companies were for-profit enterprises, with investors, etc.

    My community did not get dial telephones and seven-digit numbers until 1960, because it was not until then that the local company could afford to invest the large amount of money necessary to install the required equipment to accomodate dial telephone service, as well as seven-digit numbers, etc.

    Naturally, there was a lot of pressure from both the public and the parent companies for the local phone companies to upgrade their equipment but those upgrades could only become realities when each local company could afford them. Actually, that is still true, although most of the local land-line phone companies now cover much larger areas.

  4. Thank you, that is so interesting.
    I suppose it could be similar to the various Radio and TV stations as well. Though a local NBC affiliate would air the national shows they also could and would produce their own programming. I think even some children's programmes, like Bozo, started that way before becoming national, but I am not sure and would want to check my facts.
    There is still that element in local channels with cable access, but not the same community that was available with local TV and Radio.
    Think about it, as well, with only a few stations and then your local affiliate wishes to have a news programme with their own views on politics of the day, that would not even be allowed today, which is too bad.
    Thank you for the information.

  5. And thank YOU for your wonderful blog, which reminds or educates so many of or about the mid-twentieth-century. Your blog "celebrates" that era, whereas some other blogs focus more on ridiculing and making fun of that wonderful era. All eras, including the current one, have had their pluses and minuses but the mid-twentieth-century is tops in my book! Thanks, again, for your blog. All of your efforts regarding it are appreciated!

  6. Oh, vintage phones - I love them all. I have had the Mickey phone on my wish list for more than 25 years, but DH won't allow me. And soon I think we will discontinue our wire line, we have talked about it for the last ten years or so. Lovely post as always and I love all the vintage movies. Have a lovely Easter. :)

  7. I love vintage telephones. They're just so beautiful and unique. I decorate my house with antique telephones and my guests love them! They would get all excited because these are so easy to find!

  8. The early years of the telephone, indeed. Thanks for sharing its history and your thoughts about that. This article is very fun to read. Thanks for sharing such!

  9. We have several vintage phones in our home that have been completely restored inside, so that all the wiring is "new". They all have home dial ability and they are mostly from the 30's & 40's, with the exception of the kitchen wall phone (in ivory) like in your first picture. I remember growing up in the 70's our home had the "avocado green" kitchen wall phone from the 60's! LOL! We only have one push-button phone out of necessity because many companies/businesses you call have the automated systems that do NOT service rotary phones.... :(


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