Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Resurrecting the Past: Rotary Dial Telephone

For those who remember the old rotary phones that were used for decades until pushbutton phones became standard, this story might be of interest. For those too young to know about these phones, this might be seen as a bit of a history lesson from the relatively recent past. Hopefully it will prove interesting for both parties in some way.

Recently I picked up an old red rotary dial telephone at a flea market. I've been wanting to get one of these for a while. They're not terribly hard to find, but the prices for them seem to vary in range from very cheap to quite pricey. The one I bought was in very good shape and had a regular standard phone jack. This was important, as I didn't want to have to try to rewire a phone that had one of those old style plugs. The deciding factor was the price though. They wanted ten bucks for it, which seemed fair. When I asked if they could do any better they gave it to me for seven dollars. Sold!

I have a nostalgic feeling for these old phones because I remember having and using them in my parents' house when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The look, feel and sound of these little time machines brings you right back to those old days. What I was really looking for was one of the wall-mounted models--as that was what I remember using most of the time in my house (ours was yellow). This one (image borrowed from the website Vintage Rotary Phones) is very similar to the one I spent so many hours on back then:

Here's a photo I found showing the actual old yellow phone in my house in January 1986!

Since I didn't really want to have to drill holes into a wall to mount one of these models, a desk model seemed like it would be a better choice. I wasn't too concerned with the color. I was kind of thinking that a black one would look nice, or maybe some funky 1970s green or orange number (the kind that would look right at home in the Brady Bunch house). But when I saw this red one I knew it was meant to be! It's like having a direct line to the President. ...Or better yet, Batman!

It's kind of surprising to learn that you can still plug one of these babies in and use it like any other phone. I know there's some kind of difference between how new and old telephones use the phone line, but when this one was plugged in I got a dial tone right away. It's a strange feeling to be dialing a phone number with the rotary dial after all these years--especially since you have to physically dial the whole eleven digits for most phone numbers now. Back in the days of rotary phones I remember being able to simply dial the last four or five digits of a phone number for local calls. When I tried to make a call on my old red phone--and after dialing all those digits--the call went through just as it should. The only problem is when you get a recorded menu and you have to punch in a series of numbers to navigate through it to actually reach a human voice (if you're lucky).

I suppose the main reason it seems kind of odd for these phones to work so well is the simple fact that you don't see them much anymore and they seem like relics from the past. Nowadays you can go to any department store and pick up a phone for anywhere from a few dollars to a couple hundred bucks (depending on the quality and features you want). Back when the old rotary phones were being used they actually belonged to the phone company that provided you with your service. When rotary went the way of the dinosaur and these phones were replaced with pushbuton ones, the phone company apparently went into the homes of their customers and removed "their" phones. In an unused room at my parents' house you can still see the mark on the wall where a phone was removed--as well as the holes from the screws that mounted it. Check out this message on the receiver of my red phone which would let you know that the phone you used in your home wasn't really "yours":

While I bought this old telephone mainly for its nostalgic value, it has actually come in handy twice already. Back in August we were hit with the remnants of a hurricane. There wasn't much damage, but we lost power for a couple days. Without electricity our cordless phones (which have to be plugged into an electric outlet) wouldn't work. We also couldn't charge our cell phone. I plugged the old red phone in and was able to communicate with the outside world! At the end of October we got an early snow storm which again knocked out the power for two days. Again, the old red phone came to the rescue!

After the storm
I mentioned that these kinds of phones have a certain look, feel and sound that take you back to an earlier time. The "look" part is obvious and can be seen in the photos already posted here. The "feel" part has a lot to do with the sheer weight and solidness of an old phone. Phones of today are very light, slim and small--almost dainty. When you lift the receiver of one of these older phones it's pretty large and you can feel a substantial weight. Compared to modern telephones and cell phones, these practically feel like dumbbells. It's a reassuring weight to be sure.  Of course there's also the long-lost familiar feel of actually dialing a phone number using those little finger holes in the dial instead of pressing buttons.  And even the coiled cord attaching the receiver to the phone supplies another semi-forgotten feeling in this age of cell phones and cordless phones.

Finally, the "sound" part has everything to do with the actual bell mechanism inside the phone that makes it literally ring. It's hard to explain what this sounds like if you have never heard one and have only experienced the electronic "ringing" of a modern phone, or the multitude of ring tones available for cell phones. And there's also the sound of the dial itself, turning as each number is selected and then  returning to its original position. Instead of even trying to explain these sounds I'll post this video I made of my new old phone so you can hear it for yourself. It starts off with a call to our regular cordless phone to set the stage. Next comes a call from a cell phone to the old rotary phone. Finally, the old phone is used to call the cell phone.

Talk about old-school technology meeting new-school technology!

A few years back I saw an old toy telephone for sale at a yard sale for about a quarter.  I picked it up for The Little Monster and thought it would be a good way to show her what it used to be like to make a phone call way back when Dad was a kid.  She seemed to take the idea of a dial in stride (maybe because she already had one of those old-school Fisher Price pull-along telephones).  The funny thing is that the old, kind of shabby toy phone I found just happened to be a red desk model--very much like the real one I would eventually buy for myself!

The Little Monster's toy telephone...
And Monster Dad's "toy"--a real phone!


867-5309 (Jenny)


  1. Seriously, I love this - you must have had SO MUCH FUN making this! Of all the things that I remember about rotary telephones, I'd forgot about what it feels like and sounds like to actually USE that rotary dial. And it blows my mind to know that younger people now will never know what this experience is really like. Although, if they come here to check out your blog, they'll get a good idea!

  2. I just picked one of these up myself at a yard sale in October. The people having the yard sale were giving it away free, so I got quite a bargain. Mine is that darker tan color (as opposed to the lighter tan color they also made). When my parents found out that I had it, they offered me their old wall-mounted one that they had saved. I turned it down for the reason you gave above: I didn't want to be drilling holes in the wall (and my wife wouldn't have let me anyway, had I wanted to). I get a kick out of owning it every time I see one in a classic movie or TV show. They really were workhorses, they've been around at least since the Fifties and my parents had a push-button version well into t he Eighties. I'll bet they'll work forever, unlike modern phones.

  3. @Rich: Thanks for the kind words. We had many conversations on phones like this one!

    @SaturdayMorningFan: Very true. Everything today seems to be so flimsy. It's become such a disposable society. These things really do seem solid and like they would last forever.

  4. I love this posting! I was just looking at some old photos from family holidays past and laughed when I saw the rotary phone on the kitchen wall, just as you mentioned. This was a fun walk down memory lane, and a great history lesson for the younger generation.

  5. That is so awesome! I want one of those & have been searching in thrift stores but they're usually broken. ;\ Bleh. I'll check that site you posted!

    Enjoy your Thanksgiving! Embrace all the yummy delights. :)

  6. good investment. older technology was/is better in some ways...

  7. New Old Stock rotary phones are still available at http://www.FrillFreePhones.com

    1. Hey, thanks a lot for the information! That's a great website. It's a little pricey, but great to know that there's a place selling "new" old phones out there for anyone who wants that retro feel!