Kick the phone

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal

Special for Village News

Are you old enough to remember the days when you didn’t have a phone? If you do, you are of a certain age.

I was 10 when we got our first phone. Thing is, it was mounted on the wall of our Kansas farm. It was just inside the front door.

Our phone was a large wooden box with a tulip-shaped tip protruding over a gooseneck. The crank was on the right side and the bell-shaped earphone was placed in the U-shaped holder on the left. The cord was about 20 inches long, so if you were talking to someone, you had to stand in front of the mouthpiece to talk and listen.

Calls were made by lifting the earpiece on the left side, before twisting the right handle several times until you heard the click which called for a voice announcing “operator”. We gave her the number like Plaza 3-6122 and she connected us.

However, if my parents needed to call outside the area, this same operator would then connect them to a long distance operator. The operators were friendly women. They were polite and helpful and could even provide a phone number for people in any city in America. You could even hear them talking to each other. And it was free.

We lived out of town on a farm. Therefore, we had a shared line with six other families. It was polite to hang up and wait your turn if others were using the line. Everyone on our party line adhered to this good neighbor protocol, while rumors abound that this was not always the case for other shared lines.

So this was rural Kansas in the late 1950s. The townspeople all had private lines for their black rotary-dial desk phones.

For me, the telephone started to change in the early 1960s after I moved to San Francisco to live with my older brother at the end of my freshman year in high school. He told me I would need help with the expenses, which is why my school counselor helped me find a part-time job in the fall at the start of my senior year at Galileo High School overlooking Alcatraz . My first job was with Pacific Telephone and Telegraph at 77 Fell Street. That’s when my relationship with the phone really started.

Phones have gone from the giant wooden boxes we used to using to much smaller and lighter plastic models. And some even came in color. The colored telephones were still wall mounted with looped cords attached to the handset which hung from a side cradle.

Most families still had only one rotary phone. Originally, each plastic wall unit came with a 6 foot looped cord. Much later you could buy a 13 foot looped cord that could be replaced and then a 20 foot looped cord on the handset. It gave us some walking freedom, but we were still all tied to the kitchen wall.

And as the handset cords grew longer, they often became a gnarled, twisted mess as they got tangled in a spool, all too often causing us to ricochet against the wall.

Touch buttons were the next feature added to the wall units that have now been introduced in Harvest Gold and Olive Green. Those fashion colors, huh?

In 1964 marketing was new to me as well as direct selling. Even so, as a young service rep, it was my responsibility to introduce consumers to the latest technology when they called for a new service.

The big push was for the ultra-thin Princess phone. Not only was it light and thin, but it was available in new colors like blue, cream and pink, as well as one of its extra features, and for a few pennies more a long cord could be added to allow mobility. The long cord allowed consumers to walk and talk from room to room for the first time in history.

Eventually the Princess phone switched from rotary tone to touch tone and at that point we all thought the phone had “gone as far as it could go”.

Or so we thought.

On the business side of the phone’s development, there have also been big changes. It was no longer necessary to employ operators to answer incoming calls as, for the first time in history, the multi-line console came into effect, allowing a single person to manage multiple lines.

And then in the early 1980s, America discovered the car phone. It was the size of a suitcase and as they say, “the rest is history”.

The car phone quickly evolved into the “brick”, to the flip phone, followed by a fruit bowl of phones called Banana, Blackberry, Apple, then came Razr. Technology moved towards digital, followed by colored screens.

Then Bluetooth came with hands-free headsets, to today’s Smartphones which are multimedia tools allowing us to do everything from tracking our position to buying an airplane seat, passing by photo taking or calling anywhere in the world.

New technology allows us to tweet on Twitter, post on Tik Tok, watch YouTube, meet friends on Facebook and Instagram while riding in the car or having a meal at a fancy restaurant. People can’t seem to put their phones away.

The downside is that we too often get unsolicited calls, usually from foreign places by non-English speaking people, trying to sell us extended car warranties, which is tantamount to trying to steal our credit card information. And that’s just mean.

The fact is, we’ve come a long way from our identification by our neighborhood exchange in the 1950s to today’s status as decreed by the shape and brand of our mobile device. The ultimate snobbery being those people talking into their Dick Tracy wristwatches.

All of this has happened in the last 40 years alone. My God, we’ve even been to the moon and back, but now we can’t dial 411 for a phone number in another city. It seems that the cell phone has become a curse and a delight.

Finally, don’t you find it odd that after decades of developing every conceivable talking feature to use with our personal cell phones, we don’t actually talk on them? Instead, are we more adept at texting?

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be contacted at [email protected]

Comments are closed.