I love my smartphone. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. We’re all addicted to the rectangular little monsters and all they can do for us. We do so much more on them than talk that it’s kind of odd that we still call them phones. They’re so far removed from the telephones of yesteryear, with features we only dreamed of. I wrote about my idea for one of those features here.
It wasn’t that long ago that cell phones didn’t exist. Home phones (what the whippersnappers call “land lines”) were a huge part of our everyday lives. Technology has come so far, and as much as I love most of it, I can’t help but be nostalgic for what no longer exists.
Gather ‘round children, and I’ll tell you about what it was like when this quinquagenarian was young and talking on the phone was all the rage.
In the 60s and 70s when I was growing up, my practical and frugal (i.e. cheap) parents opted for standard utilitarian telephones. Even after touch-tone phones became a thing, we kept our old rotary dial models. We envied our friends’ princess phones, but our stalwart parents never saw the point of something so frivolous.
In those days, there was nothing like the thrill of hearing the phone ring. And ring it did, with an actual bell. My siblings and I would race each other to answer, throwing elbows and using blocking techniques that would make a roller derby coach proud. Getting to the thing first was just a minor victory. If the call was for you, you were the real winner.
Knowing today’s kids are happier reading text messages from their friends makes me a little sad. Giddy, gossip sessions with my girlfriends. Bashful and tentative conversations with boys. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about the old-fashioned telephone.
- If no one was home, the phone just kept ringing. If they were talking to someone else, you’d hear a busy signal. No call waiting, no voicemail. Your only choice was to call back later.
- There was no such thing as a cordless phone. If you wanted some privacy, you’d ask someone to hold the phone for you, dash to pick up a phone in another part of the house and holler “I’ve got it!” so they’d hang up the other extension.
- With no voicemail (or answering machine) you’d write down messages for our absent family members. Unless you were my brother who chose to rely on his memory instead. Kiss those messages goodbye.
- Caller ID didn’t exist yet, so you could safely call your crush, hear his dreamy voice, and hang up with him non-the-wiser. Confirming he was at home, you could then walk or drive by his house and try to “accidentally” run into him.
- The absence of caller ID allowed you to make hilarious prank calls at slumber parties. Our favorite was to make a serious of calls to the same house. We’d take turns making three or four calls asking to speak to Veronica. “There’s no one here by that name,” they’d say, their irritation ratcheting up with each call. We’d call one last time saying “Hi, this is Veronica. Did I get any calls?”
We’d hang up and collapse in giggles. We were jerks.
- Pay phones were everywhere. That was how you let Mom and Dad know when to pick you up from play practice, the mall, or the roller rink.
- The agony of expecting an important call is still a thing today. But remember picking up the phone, again and again, to make sure there was a dial tone?
- Long distance calls were incredibly expensive. You could call someone collect and reverse the charges, but that was even more expensive. A college friend had a creative way of letting her Mom and Dad know she’d arrived back at the dorm after a weekend at home. She’d call them collect and tell the operator to ask for Vinnie. Vinnie was her hamster. The parents would refuse the call but would get the message that she was safe.
- Hanging up on someone with a cell phone lacks that satisfying crash of the handset into the cradle.
How many of these do you remember? Party lines, teen phones, switchboard operators, calling 411 for information, phone books – all are gone for good. I finally understand how my parents felt about radio and the early days of television.
I look back fondly on those old telephone days. New technology is wonderful. Sometimes it can even be a little frightening, but we have no choice but to adapt. Time marches on, and we march with it or get trampled.
There are too many songs about telephones to count. Here’s one that takes me right back to the time I’m talking about in this post. The year was 1975. I was twelve years old, and this song played in a steady rotation on AM radio. For the youngsters out there – that’s AM as in AM/FM, not AM/PM!