As a result of Stephen Spielberg’s 1982 hit movie E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the phrase “E.T., phone home!” became a beloved part of our culture. The homesick alien’s desire to connect with his distant family still resonates today, and the telephone is still a key way to connect. However, the ways we use our phones have changed drastically during my lifetime.

When I was a kid, we had a rotary dial telephone with a twisty-twisty cord. This device was used to allow people to actually hear each other’s voices over long distances. In those days, the process for making a phone call was thus: First, you lifted the handset off the cradle on the base of the telephone, at which point you would (hopefully) hear a buzzing dial tone indicating that the line was live (unless you were in a horror movie, in which case, there would be dead silence, and scary music would start playing in the background). Then, you dialed the phone by poking an index finger into one of the numbered circular holes and then rotating the dial around. Of course, you had to repeat this process for each digit in the phone number. The dial made a satisfying “click click click” noise as it rotated. We referred to this process as “dialing the phone”. Then, through the magic of Alexander Graham Bell, a telephone in a distant location would make a “rinngggggg ringgggg ringgggg” sound, until someone lifted the received off the base of that telephone and stated the standard greeting for their home or business. “Good afternoon, Smith Residence.”

A back-and-forth, real-time conversation would ensue, until such time as one party replaced the receiver in the cradle on the base of their phone, breaking the connection. Since phones were often installed on the wall, this process would involve hanging the receiver onto hooks attached to the wall unit. As a result, we called this process “hanging up the phone.” Ideally, the decision to terminate the call would be mutual. However, sometimes an aggrieved party would unilaterally end the call by “hanging up on” the other party, who naturally would become disgruntled by this treatment. Back then, most households had only one telephone, which was shared by the members of the family. This resulted in many power struggles for access to the device. Dad of course had #1 priority, followed by Mom with #2 priority. Kids were reduced to inter-sibling bargaining, threatening, and trickery in order to make or receive an important call (i.e., one from a member of the opposite sex). In those situations, privacy was a constant concern, since everything that you said “on the phone” could be heard by anyone else in your immediate vicinity. I can remember stretching that twisty cord as far as it would possibly go, around the kitchen corner into the formal dining room, all in a futile effort to get far enough away to have a semi-private conversation with my boyfriend.

Eventually, though, it became possible to have an “extension phone” in another room, although typically it was in the parents’ bedroom. Having a telephone in your bedroom was the height of luxury, and was not for kids, unless they were pampered darlings with pink “princess phones”. The idea of an extension in the (gasp) bathroom would have shocked people speechless. But times changes, and the time came with even regular people could have extensions in their bedrooms. However, it was still the same physical phone line, so anyone else in the house could pick up another extension and listen in. Eventually, technology advanced to the point where the telephone handset no longer had to be physically attached to the base unit, and phones became “cordless”. (Bye bye twisty black cord!)

But if a person needed to make a telephone call while away from their home or business, it was necessary to locate a public telephone, either indoors on the wall of a building or outdoors at a phone booth. The appearance of phone booths varied, but when I was growing up, they were often small, rectangular boxes with clear side panels that one could enter to access the phone. (Personally, I never observed any bright blue wooden phone boxes but I would not then have recognized the significance of such a sighting.) Of course, public phones were not free, and so were called “pay phones”. It was prudent to carry a selection of coins on one’s person when venturing away from home, in the event that it became necessary to make use of a phone booth.

So imagine our delight when telephone technology advanced to the point that it was possible for “cellular” phones to be installed in moving vehicles. (Shocker!) And later on, certain phones became disassociated from a permanent location and became self-contained portable entities (initially the size of a small suitcase) referred to as “mobile phones”. For many professions, access to such a device gave the user a leg up on the competition, as well as serious bragging rights. During those years, I worked in the computer industry and in the real estate arena, and I was highly envious of my peers for whom such luxuries were within reach. Years went by before I could afford a mobile phone, which amazingly could be used to (A) make telephone calls and (B) receive telephone calls. For me, this was an entirely satisfactory situation.

Still more years went by before I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the modern era by my teenagers, who were convinced that they were characters in a Dickens novel, as a result of not being in possession of devices with which to text, surf, Skype, Google, Facebook, SnapChat, Instagram, and in general be in communication with their peers on a minute-by-minute 24×7 basis. Not wanting to be responsible for this irreparable damage to their psyches, I finally got them each an iPhone for Christmas. And I got one for myself, as well. And life has never been the same. Since technology is still whizzing by at a furious pace, I decided that I’d better take a picture of my first iPhone for my scrapbook, before it too becomes a relic of a lost era.

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9 Responses to Blog: Phone Home

  1. Beverly Goodrich says:

    We thought we were in heaven when my parents got a phone with an extra, extra long cord. We could go halfway down the basement stairs and shut the stair door to have our private conversations without little siblings or parents listening in.

  2. LindaIOSMe says:

    Did you ever experience the wonders of a “party” line? 2-party was okay (your house and someone else), where one “ring” meant you, and a double ring was “them”, but friends also had a 4-party line! I’m not sure how they kept track of all the variations – I guess you got used to it. Of course, it also meant that you’d pick up the phone to make a call and discover someone else already on the line. In the cases I was aware of, all the “party” line folks did know each other, and were pretty respectful of each other – but it did get trying if you were waiting for a call and they were on the line… I’m not sorry to see the end of those “pleasures”! But, as I recall – we were sograteful to have a phone at the house, and not have to go a half mile down the way to a public phone, that we didn’t complain very loudly at having to share the line!

  3. Melissa Sullivan says:

    This is a great remembrance! I tell my kids all the time “You just don’t get it!” and they are 17 and 22 so they’ve seen quite a bit of change in their lives as well.

  4. Jan says:

    Love this, Penny, and boy, does it bring back memories! My grandparents’ phones didn’t even have those twisty cords – you and to sit down at the “telephone table” to talk – there was no room for walking, pacing, or hiding. We had three phones when I was growing up – one in kitchen (VERY long cord), mom & dad’s room, and one downstairs outside Daddy’s workshop. And then FINALLY, my sister and I got to share a phone that could go in either of our rooms or in our family room. Heaven! I used to get in so much trouble for talking on the phone late at night when Mom would pick up the extension in her room trying to catch me…

    I think of all of those phone calls (and you didn’t even talk about LONG DISTANCE!) and how important they were, back before the days of robo-callers. And you could always say “I tried to call you and let you know I would be late, but the line was busy…” Now I feel semi-permanently attached to my phone. Not sure that is a good thing…


  5. Vicki says:

    Great memories! I still remember when we got our first phone that wasn’t black! It was a yellow phone that hung in our kitchen that matched our yellow stove, oven and refrigerator back in the early 1960’s. Oh yes, I remember stretching that twisty cord as far as I could to talk to boyfriends!! How things have changed!

  6. Barbara Mitchell says:

    When I was young, we did not have a “private” line. We were on a “party line” with two other houses. I remember how annoying it was when you wanted to make a call and someone in one of the other houses was on the phone. Pick up the phone, hear talking, hang up, repeat. Sometimes we had to get rude and ask them to get off the phone! Of course, one of the houses was my grandmother’s, so we had to be polite! Then we finally had our own private line and thought we had died and gone to heaven! Our kitchen phone was on the wall and just around the corner was the bathroom. The phone cord got stretched out long enough to go around the corner and shut the door. We had our own “phone booth”!

  7. KatieK. says:

    The black rotary phone in my mom’s kitchen is treasured by everyone who visits. I love the multi-sensory feedback I get when I use it – the smooth spinning as the number dial is turned counterclockwise and then the clickety sound as the dial is released and rotates back, the heft of the hand set, the smoothness of the plastic… Thank you for writing up such a great synopsis of our phones’ history. What a great page!

  8. Lindie says:

    Good story. I still have a rotary phone in my kitchen. We had college students several years ago who needed to use the phone (rotary) and did not know how to use it. They had never put their finger in the hole and dialed a number. We were amazed at their lack of problem solving skills and ended up having to dial the number for them. LOL

  9. Liz Propst says:

    Love the step by step on hour to dial!! And OH….I had forgotten about the privacy thing! Great blog, Penny!

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