Oh Oh Telephone Li-i-ine 🎶
Remember actually talking on telephones? What was the first phone model that mattered to you? An open thread...
There’s lots of good television out there, and more coming soon. (I’m particularly excited for Bob Odenkirk’s Lucky Hank, and new seasons of Party Down, Ted Lasso, Succession, Barry, and Yellow Jackets—and even more so for the April 7th launch of Tiny Beautiful Things on Hulu, based onadvice column!)
As we’ve been waiting, Brian and I have fallen into a habit of rewatching older shows— Columbo, The Sopranos, the first two seasons of Party Down, Jane the Virgin to name a few—and I’ve been noticing how different kinds of telephones on screen help to mark the shows’ cultural time periods. It’s made me think about all the telephones I’ve had over time, their significance based on the era and where I was at in my life, and the different ways I’ve used them.
Further down I’ll tell you about the second-hand yellow “princess” rotary dial phone that a nice neighbor wired into my bedroom in the fall of 1979, the year I turned 14—an essentially illegal maneuver that allowed me to talk privately to my friends and crushes. In the comments I want to hear about the first phone that mattered to you.
Here are some of the telephone trends I’ve recently noticed in the older shows we’ve been rewatching:
In the earlier of Columbo’s thirteen (!) seasons, spanning from the early 70s to the early 90s, Peter Falk’s character uses old bakelite rotary dial phones. In The Sopranos, which ran from 1999 to 2007—pre-smartphone—and the first two seasons of Party Down from 2009 to 2010, everyone’s using flip models. In Jane the Virgin, which ran from 2014 to 2019, iPhones are so prevalent, they might as well be characters—although we mostly see them being used for texting.
I could go on and on about the different types of phones used as plot devices in different periods of film and television, but I won’t. Besides, someone already beat me to it: While putting this together I stumbled upon a retrospective of telephones in movies from 2015 on a blog called “Blonde at the Film,” written by a film scholar named Cameron. There’s a corresponding Instagram account, too, where I found this depiction of “party-line” scenes in the 1959 movie Pillow Talk:
In any case, from the 19th century, when early iterations of the telephone appeared, through the current moment, when everyone walks around with pocket-sized mini-computers they rarely actually talk on, telephones have played different roles in our lives and meant different things to us.
I’m as addicted to my iPhone as the next guy—and I prefer FaceTime to plain phone calls because you can see each other and get a better sense of whose turn it is to talk!—but the first phone that really mattered to me was the afore mentioned yellow “princess” model I had illegally installed in 1979.
I’ve always had a weird relationship to telephones. I’ve never really liked talking on them, although now and then phone conversations can be useful and more expedient than texting. But now as back then, phone calls make me nervous.
As a teen, I begged to have an extension of our family phone line installed in my bedroom despite this. I was desperate to make myself available to my friends and crushes, even though I dreaded actually talking to them. What if there were awkward silences I didn’t know how to fill? What if I said the wrong thing? What if, without visual cues, I spoke at the wrong time, stepping on a cute boy’s lines?
Still, the yellow “princess” phone—procured at a yard sale and installed by a kid down the block who knew how to splice telephone wires to make extensions—was a life-line for me. I mostly conversed with friends from summer camp, who lived far away. In those days, you were charged per minute. When the phone bill arrived each month, I’d comb through it and tally up my share, then pay my mom for it with my babysitting money. There were different rates for calling various areas, and for calls made at different hours; it was least expensive to talk after 11pm, but that was past my bedtime.
In my senior year of high school I had a part-time job at a market research firm. In the basement of a woman’s house, I was assigned a desk with a phone from which I’d cold-call people from all over the country to ask them about their buying habits. Often I’d get hung up on, or find myself on the receiving end of racist and misogynist tirades. It was in many ways terrifying, and also an education. (It did not help me feel better about talking on the telephone!)
In college in the early 80s, there was just one wall-phone for a dorm with six girls—no answering machine, no voicemail, no such thing yet as call-waiting or caller I.D. I had a long-distance boyfriend, and would have to vie with my suite mates for phone time, and hope that my boyfriend didn’t get a busy signal when he rang me. When we reached each other, my phone anxiety would be heightened by the fact that I had no privacy—the phone was affixed to a wall in the suite’s common area, and the spiral cord between the handle and the base was short. It would just reach to the bathroom, where I could close the door, but then I had to worry about my suite mates needing to pee.
There were pay phones down in the lobby, but you needed an awful lot of dimes, then quarters, to use those. And they didn’t offer any more in the way of privacy.
How did we manage???
Anyway, what was your first significant telephone? Tell me in the comments…
P.S. As I’ve been writing this, these songs have sprung to mind:
(I should probably make a playlist of songs about phone calls!)
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We had a light blue kitchen wall phone exactly like the white one in your photos. More often than not, when it rang it made all of us jump. Would it be bad news? Was someone in trouble? Was I in trouble? (You get the sense of optimism I was surrounded by in my childhood.) Our favorite joke which my 3 siblings found infinitely hilariously was a hit piece on our mother. We’d love to play act this little skit: there was our sweet Selma, tired of catering to her (cute but let’s face it, annoying) kids all day, and by dinner, if we were in any way bitching about the food, she’d get really pissed. This was how it would go: if we complained or didn’t want to eat something she’d growl at all of us at the dinner table about our lack of appreciation and selfishness (she was not wrong). Just as she was about to lose it, the blue wall phone would ring. With what seemed like elastic arms she’d stretch across the room and answer it in the sweetest, most angelic voice, like you’d just reached the receptionist in heaven. Even my Mom laughed a little when we took turns playing her.
Growing up in the Seventies, the only phones we had were rotary dial. Our family had two: One was mounted on the wall of our kitchen, and the second was upstairs in my parent's bedroom. That's where you would go if you wanted to have "private" conversations, although of course nothing could prevent someone from silently picking up the downstairs kitchen phone to secretly eavesdrop. Silently picking up the other line to listen in to a sister's or brother's conversation became an art form. During the pandemic, I did a lot of re-watching of "old" TV shows, and one of the shows I binged was "My So-Called Life," which actually still holds up. This is a show about teenage life that, to my amazement all these years later, contains NO CELL PHONES. It just proved to me, yet again, that we can survive without them. But whether or not we want to is a different question.