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By the Way: The 1960s called. It used a rotary phone


When my son and his family last visited us, my elder grandson, who is 14, excitedly emerged from our basement with an old telephone in hand. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes sparkling, his excitement palpable.

“Look what I found, Nana,” he said.

It was a 1960s or ‘70s model, one that had belonged to my mother-in-law.

I have hardly ever seen him so focused on anything that wasn’t a skateboard or a computer screen. First, he fiddled with the wires, disconnecting one of our portable phones and connecting the old rotary dial version.

“What’s your phone number?’ he asked and bingo, the phone on my desk rang and we chatted for a bit across the room.

“It works,” he proclaimed, plainly awed at his accomplishment.

Hot on his heels, our second grandson, age 8, arrived, twice as excited (if possible) as his big brother. He took in the sight of this foreign object as though it were from outer space.

“What is it?” he demanded. “How does it work? Can I touch it?”

His eyes lit up when his brother showed him how to dial. Having known only cell phones, the two boys were mesmerized. The little trip into what they probably consider ancient history took them both right out of screen time and into reality.

It brought a new reality to me, too — how much communication has changed during my lifetime.

“People didn’t always have a phone in almost every room,” I told them.

When I was a child, all phones, like all Fords, were black. There were reportedly a few ivory-colored telephones, I’ve since learned, but I never saw one.

Our family phone was the standard black Bakelite phone that had replaced all metal ones in the 1930s.

Most houses had only one phone; some houses had none and some had what was called a party line shared by several homes, a dream for nosy neighbors who could secretly listen to conversations.

Our home phone was connected to my father’s pharmacy. It had a different ring for each location and we had to dial a three-digit code if we wanted to talk to him at the store.

Our home phone number was 448. It progressed over the years to 9448, 8-9448, Stillwell 8-9448, 788-9448 and eventually 215-788-9448.

When I went on to college in New York City we had one telephone on each dormitory floor. It was a black wall phone in Hewitt Hall’s fourth floor laundry room. We all shared phone duty in rotation, summoning other girls from their rooms or taking messages from their boyfriends.

If we wanted to call outside, we stood in line in the lobby to use one of five phone booths and made collect calls to our parents or dropped coins in the slots to speak to others.

After a new job took me back to my parents’ home in Bristol, I had a pink princess phone in my bedroom. Sleek and pretty, but every time it rang, it knocked the receiver off the base. It was quite disconcerting for the caller. The first thing they heard was it crashing to the floor. Regular callers got used to hearing the noise but I recall constantly explaining to new callers.

We still have the one landline we had installed when my husband built our home and it faithfully served us and our two children through their teenage years. Then came the portable phones with extensions in other rooms.

In the office, when I was a reporter, a headphone did the job, freeing up one hand to write notes or type, the other to grab a cup of coffee between words.

Now I can make a phone call using only my computer and there is also the ubiquitous cell phone, which has not yet grown into the skin on my palm, although I expect that might happen any day. Time does march on.

Kathryn Finegan Clark is a freelance writer who lives in Durham. She can be reached at

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