Old Time Telephone

Photograph of an antique telephone processed to look like old film.

In 1947, the telephone at my grandparents’ farm consisted of a black wooden box about the size of a 12-volt car battery screwed to the kitchen wall. It had a crank sticking out of one side that drove what my grandfather called the dynamo and a pair of hemispheric bells on top.

Next to the box, on a small, bracketed shelf that my grandfather made stood the actual phone: from a circular base about eight inches across rose a two-inch-in-diameter, round black pedestal about a foot tall with a projection near the top that looked in shape a lot like a daffodil blossom – but made of metal, and black. One spoke into the “blossom.” Halfway down the pedestal, a hinged two-prong cradle held the earpiece which, when lifted, activated the phone. There was no dial tone. There was no dial. The entire town was on a single party line and Flossie Bean, the operator, ran it from a Lily Tomlin-type switchboard in the front room of her house in the village.

One long ring, about six turns of the crank, would roust her from her rocker by the Glenwood stove back in her kitchen, or startle her from slumber on her front room day bed. Every subscriber was assigned a distinct combination of short and long rings. My grandfather’s phone “number” was three longs and two shorts. On a sunny August day when the entire town was haying, no cranks were cranked, no bells jingled at all. Flossie quilted at her dining room table. On dour days, however, the bells would jangle any number of times in a multitude of combinations of long rings and shorts. Flossie was only needed when a caller sought connection to a long-distance operator or to another nearby phone system, or if you didn’t know a neighbor’s number and had to have Flossie crank it for you.

The rings jingled in every home. But you were not supposed to lift the earpiece from its cradle unless the rings signaled your own number. Ruby and Walt, the nearest neighbors, early subscribers to the service, were four short rings. Charles Chellis, the auctioneer (three shorts and a long), got the most calls, usually to arrange a dooryard auction of a house and its contents when the last member of a family line had died, when a long-unused barn and shed got cleaned out, or, sadly, when some small-farm family’s finances failed. He also got calls from antique dealers trying to find, say, an oval tilt-top claw-foot walnut candle stand, an 18th-century curly maple hutch, or an unchipped chamber pot to match a pattern someone already had in the pitcher and basin. Despite the illegality of eavesdropping, my grandfather, also in the antique business, would quiet his breathing, pick up and listen in, no matter the number of rings, from his kitchen black box, but especially if it was Chellis’s ring sequence that had rung.

When my grandparents got a call from my mom reporting that she was about to travel to the farm, leaving her husband behind in the suburbs of Boston, Ruby forgot herself and hollered the news to Walt just coming in from the barn before she remembered to put her hand over the mouthpiece. Gossip about health matters, engagements, births and deaths (people didn’t get divorced in those days), changing market prices of produce, grain, or milk – especially milk – was the lifeblood of the town.

But in the kerosene lamp, car-less, phone-less World War II years, the isolation on a farm must have felt endless to many, especially the young. Large tracts of planted or grazed fenced fields between farmsteads, rutted roads, axle-deep mud, winter snow too deep even for rolling, seed planting, and haying when the sun shone (and tool sharpening when it didn’t), kept those large families home. There wasn’t time for casual visits a mile or two down the road. Everyone worked and awaited the Grange Hall supper and square dance on Saturday, coffee, and muffins after the services on Sunday. Suppers in town, dances, and coffee after church were the only occasions when the whole community gathered, when there was time to share news, hopes, opinions, time for courting, or for commiseration. And it was all better expressed for having had as much as a week to be ruminated upon inwardly, phrased and re-phrased, practiced aloud from the seat of the hay wagon, the milking stool, the kitchen rocker (where mother knitted socks while bread dough rose in dampened-dishtowel draped wooden bowls).

Later, when most folks had automobiles (but still before telephones), Hill’s General Store and the Post Office next door constituted an effective communication center, such that everyone in town quickly knew everything about everybody. The arrival of the phone system only slightly increased the speed of information transmission and had no effect at all on the general hypocrisy regarding personal or familial privacy.

And, sadly, the town-wide installation of telephones disrupted a more cogitative way of life. It led to the perception that one was under pressure to speak in haste, to respond instantly to some question or prompt, to expand upon ideas one hadn’t had a chance to deliberate upon.

To misspeak.

And to regret.

While at first, as the primitive telephone appeared in more and more homes, many users were initially paralyzed with a new variation of stage fright. But most, too embarrassed to leave an expensive silence hanging on the wire, leapt into rambling, bumbling talk much as we, more recently, tap frenetically on our devices in a mix of lexical shortcuts and emojis, then tap “send” before we’ve allowed notions of honesty, accuracy, integrity, or diplomacy to temper our overly hasty misrepresentations of who we really are. I’d bet you’ve done this yourself, and then gulped with instant regret.

Compared to today’s astounding accelerated upward curve of technological innovation, development in the telephone industry in the early years seems to have been glacially slow. Inexorably, local phone systems like the one my grandparents initially experienced gave way to larger and larger radiuses of service, the crank to the dial, and the long/short number to a real seven-digit telephone number.

The first three elements of the seven-digit number were in fact letters, an abbreviation of a local noteworthy name. An example: Williams College Chemistry Professor William Lasell, an early feminist, founded what was to become Lasell Junior College in Newton, Mass., in1851. His name became the telephone exchange Lasell in Newton years later. Over time, “Please give me Lasell 1911,” spoken to the operator became a dialed LAS-1911, which in turn became a tapped 547-1911, the alpha-numeric exchanges having become inadequate over time and, the three initial digits finally having no alphabetic symbolism at all. Oddly, the keyboard of a telephone still anachronistically bears the three alphabet letters assigned to the digits 2 through 9.

This has led to much mischief. In the 1970s, a snarky girlfriend of a friend of mine welcomed him into her life by whispering to him her otherwise unmemorable phone number (which was 496-8168). “It’s GYNocology 8168,” she breathed into his ear. Neither he, nor I, has ever forgotten it. And an actress friend in the Boston University Drama Department was “assigned” by her drinking pals the wholly fictional phone number 244-8487. You may decode it as you will.

Those old rotary dial phones weighed a ton. They were strong on weight, short of cord, and indestructible. When my parents sold their house after 33 years, the same telephone they’d used their whole time there remained behind. It had never required service, never broken (though it had been dropped any number of times over the years). And it offered to the very end better sound quality than any wireless phones do that my children buy new models of, it seems, as often as they buy sneakers for the kids.

While refugees fleeing East African genocide trudge across the desert, all their belongings on their backs, cell phones pressed to their ears, we in our Vermont home between two mountains have no towers, no fiber-optic cable, and no cell phone service. That is a matter of economics, not technology: the independent telecommunications service providers have not found it sufficiently profitable to build towers, string cable. Anyway, our old landline appears to be perfectly good at receiving the innumerable robocalls that start arriving around breakfast time. Unless we’re expecting your call, hearing your voice, we’ve stopped answering the telephone.

Bill Biddle is a retired teacher who worked at Northeastern University and Harvard. After moving to Vermont with his wife, artist Sharon Kenney Biddle, he co-led the Wilderness Program at St. Johnsbury Academy and taught writing at Lyndon State College.