Hello, Vintage Phones? It’s You I’m Looking For

Do you remember when there was a bit of mystery involved in answering the phone? When you’d pick up the receiver and not know who was on the other end of the line? (An act so intriguing, Lionel Richie even wrote a song about it!) As the youngest of three kids in a busy family, calls were rarely for me, but I never tired of answering the phone. Now many of us have caller ID on both our cell phones and home phones—if a home phone even exists, as many folks have severed their landlines. Recently, when walking through an old house, I came across a rotary phone. Delighted by its unexpected presence, I was inspired to do a bit of research, just to see if there are others who share my enthusiasm and appreciation for vintage phones.

A walk through collections storage here at The Strong proved I didn’t have to look too far to find some fantastic telephones: rotary phones, cordless phones, and playful novelty phones. After all who wouldn’t want to place a call using a Cabbage Patch Kid, LEGO brick-inspired blocks, or Donald Duck? As a kid, I would have loved to have called (pun intended) any one of these cleverly designed communicators my very own; getting your own phone was a pretty big deal back then.

A quick eBay search proved that vintage phones are quite collectible with dozens snatched up by bidders daily. I’ve considered getting an old rotary phone for my home, as it eliminates the possibility of “pocket dialing” and ensures you really do want to talk to the person you are calling, considering the time and effort required to dial. I’m also confident this model will encourage me to memorize more numbers, rather than relying so heavily on the contact list in my cell phone. After all, even E.T. knew the importance of a well placed call and committing a number to memory.

Despite the obvious fact that communication has changed dramatically in such a short period of time—the aesthetics as well as the technology—I was taken aback when a friend recently told me his daughter didn’t recognize a rotary phone when she spotted it in a picture book. When he explained it was a type of telephone, she argued it couldn’t be since it looked nothing like the mobile version he carried daily. After hearing that story, I considered the toys, books, and games that children regularly interact with and the way phones are represented. The more I thought, the more I began to realize that the majority of kids today probably have the same reaction. They don’t recognize a rotary phone as a telephone at all. As I teetered on the brink of acceptance of this concept, something amazing happened.

I was at a local bookstore, meandering through a small section of toys for babies and toddlers, when I looked down to see a friendly, familiar face. There, on the bottom shelf, a shiny, brand new, Fisher-Price Chatter Phone stared up at me. Brightly colored with handheld receiver and rotary dial, the sight made me smile as I realized my assumptions were wrong. The phone as many of us know it is still here, being manufactured for a new generation to discover. Perhaps I’ll call the folks at Fisher-Price to thank them, but first I’ll need to look up their number… using the browser on my smart phone of course.