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Kicking It on the telephone

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal

Special to The Village News

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

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

Our telephone was a big wooden box with a tulip shaped mouthpiece protruding on a gooseneck. The crank was on the right side and the bell-shaped earpiece 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 speak and to listen.

Calls were made by lifting the ear piece on the left side, before cranking the handle on the right several times around until you’d hear the click that summoned a voice announcing “operator.” We’d give her the number like Plaza 3-6122 and she’d connect us.

However, if my parents needed to call out of the area, that same operator would then connect them to a long-distance operator. Operators were friendly sounding women. They were polite and helpful and could even provide a phone number for folks in any city across 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 party line shared with six other families. It was courteous to hang up and wait your turn if others were using the line. Everyone on our party line adhered to this neighborly protocol, while rumors abound that it wasn’t always the case for other shared lines.

So that was rural Kansas in the late 1950’s. The townies all had private lines for their black desktop telephones with rotary dials.

For me the telephone started changing in the early 1960’s after I moved to San Francisco to live with my big brother at the end of my junior year in high school. He told me I’d need to assist with expenses, which is why my school counselor helped me get a part time job in the fall at the beginning of my senior year at Galileo High School overlooking Alcatraz. My first job was with Pacific Telephone and Telegraph at 77 Fell Street. That is when my relationship with the telephone really began.

Telephones advanced from the behemoth wood boxes we used to much smaller, lighter plastic models. And some even came in color. The colored phones were still wall mounted with curly cords attached to the handset that hooked onto a side cradle.

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

And while the handset cords grew longer, they often became a gnarled and twisted mess as they would self-tangle into a coil, while all too often causing us to ricochet right back against the wall

Touch tone buttons were the next feature added to the wall-mounted units which now were introduced in Harvest Gold and Olive Green. Such fashion colors, eh?

In 1964, marketing was new to me as was direct sales. Even so, as a young Service Representative, it was up to me to introduce the latest technology to consumers when they called in for new service.

The big push was for the ultra-slimline Princess telephone. Not only was it lightweight and slender, it came in new colors like blue, cream, and pink, plus one of its added features, and for a few cents more, a long cord could be added to allow mobility. The long cord allowed consumers the opportunity to walk and talk from room to room for the first time in history.

Eventually, the Princess phone transitioned from rotary to touch tone and by that time, we’d all thought the telephone had “gone about as far as it could go.”

Or so we thought.

On the business side of telephone development, there were big changes too. No longer was it necessary to employ operators to answer incoming calls because for the first time in history, the multiple line console came into the work force allowing one person to manage multiple lines.

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

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

Then Bluetooth came along with hands-free earpieces, up to today’s Smartphones which are multimedia tools allowing us to do everything from tracking our location, to buying an airplane seat, taking pictures, or making a call anywhere round the world.

The new technology allows us to tweet on Twitter, post to Tik Tok, watch YouTube, meet up with friends on Facebook and Instagram all while riding in the car or having a meal in a fancy restaurant. Folks cannot seem to put their phones away.

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

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

All of this has come about in just the last 40 years. My goodness, we’ve even been to the moon and back, however we can no longer dial 411 for a phone number in another city. It seems the cell phone has become a curse and a delight.

Lastly, don’t you find it odd that after decades of developing every imaginable talking feature to use with our personal cell phones that, in fact, we don’t actually talk on them? Instead, we are more apt to text?

Elizabeth Youngman-Westphal can be reached at [email protected].


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