Telephones in the 1950s and 60s
The telephone as we knew it growing up in the 1950s played a significant role in all our lives. Though it is now an antique anachronism, this remarkable mechanical instrument provided the means for speaking to others, miles away, without having to physically travel.
Our telephone at 10 Seymour Avenue was black with a circular dial and it sat in a small alcove by a window downstairs in our kitchen.
I recently saw a play which was set in London during the 1960s. The design of the set, costumes and props reflected that era convincingly as did the performances of the actors but one tiny detail betrayed the illusion.
Sitting on a little table on the side of the set was an old fashioned telephone with a dial. None of the actors was old enough to have ever used such a telephone and this fact manifested itself each time they picked up the receiver. Firstly they dialled it the wrong way, counter clockwise. Secondly they would only dial about three numbers instead of the regulation seven digits.
This caused me to reflect.
The percussive bell-like ring of the telephone could be heard throughout our house on Seymour. Usually my brother Jim or I would race to answer it. On this particular afternoon in the winter of 1956 it was me who got there first. I picked it up and said hello.
“Johnny-O!” exclaimed the unmistakable voice of our neighbour Dennis Brogan. I was immediately embarrassed at being addressed in this way. The jive talk continued.
“Are you clued up to KOBY, Johnny-O?”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“KOBY has all the latest platters and you can hear them for free.”
He was describing a new radio station and as the hipster jargon subsided, he invited me down to his house to listen to it.
The journey took only a few minutes as he and his mother Jean lived just off the footpath on the other side of Molino from Seymour.
KOBY indeed was something well worth listening to and I sat in his living room for over an hour hearing such records as Banana Boat, Love Me Tender, True Love and Friendly Persuasion.
It soon became clear where Dennis had picked up the ridiculous way he spoke to me on the phone as the disk jockeys all talked like idiots but the records they played were fantastic.
In no time at all I was hooked on KOBY and before long I found that Village Music had a fresh stack of their Top 40 sheets every week to help me and fellow record collector Glen Pritzker follow the charts.
If there was a new record by an artist we knew we’d simply ask Sara Wilcox to play it for us while we slipped into the sound proof booth to listen.
It was not every day that a phone call brought me news like this. More often the calls were for my parents but that telephone was quite a presence sitting in its alcove.
It was black with a handset which rested in a cradle, depressing two plungers. Lifting the handset would liberate the plungers and activate a dialing tone. The handset was connected to the main body of the phone by a spiral cord and across its front was the dial.
Written in the circular centre of the dial, under a round plastic cap, was our number: Dunlap 8-5104. There were ten holes on the dial numbered 1 to 0. Just below the number 1 hole there was a metal finger stop so that when you brought whichever number to it, the correct digits would count out as the dial returned to its neutral position.
Sitting next to our phone in the alcove window were two telephone directories. The smaller one was for Marin County and the larger was San Francisco. The listings in the phone book gave your last name first as well as your address and phone number. Our prefix remained Dunlap 8 until the early 1960s when it changed to 388.
A fact we learned soon enough was that local calls within Marin County were free but that once we dialled a number in the city or anywhere outside Marin it cost money. We also had a party line which could be annoying when you needed to make a call as you had to negotiate with the other people having their conversation.
Most of my encounters with operators occurred when I used a pay-phone and they spoke in a very particular way. Their diction was heightened and slightly exaggerated. They tended to stretch certain sounds. “One moment puhhhleeez,” was a phrase you’d often hear when the operator was dealing with you.
Of course a pay phone was a different thing to a home phone and usually stood inside a phone booth. The base of the actual phone was a rectangular black box fastened vertically to the wall with the handset hanging in a cradle. Across the top of the box was a metal extension with holes for inserting money: a quarter, a dime or a nickel. You had to put ten cents in to get a dial tone and once your party answered you’d get three minutes, then an operator would instruct you to “insert ten cents pulleeez.”
One free service the phone company offered was called Directory Enquiry where you could ask the operator to look up a phone number for you. “How do you spell that pulleez?”
The idea of speaking to others through a device was a concept which held great fascination for me throughout my childhood. My brother and I would take two paper cups, punch holes in the base and run a piece of string through, connecting the two. When the string was pulled tight you could clearly hear the other voice through the cup and this gave me a tremendous thrill. I was also fascinated by the microphones in police cars which were all shaped like avocadoes and had a spiral cord connecting them to the main box. In war movies the telephones carried by soldiers on the battlefield also intrigued me.
In the early 1960s the Princess phone was produced which quickly became very popular. The base was oval shaped with the handset sitting over the dial. It came in several, mostly pastel colours and had a decidedly feminine look.
The Princess phone was given a big promotional plug in the movie Bye, Bye Birdie with Ann Margaret talking on one in several scenes.
There’s a great number by Rodgers & Hammerstein from their show Flower Drum Song called I Enjoy Being A Girl and, though the lyrics are terribly dated from a sexist point of view, one of the lines is: “I talk on the telephone for hours, with a pound and a half of cream upon my face.” This describes perfectly Augie Belden’s sister Judy in the early 1960s.
Judy Belden was a very beautiful young woman who seemed to live for the weekends and my abiding memory of her is that she spent Saturday afternoons in her bedroom with her hair in curlers and cream all over her face with the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder while she filed her nails.
On Saturdays my brother Jim and I would be in and out of Augie’s house several times and Judy would spend most of the day preparing for her date that evening. I think possibly the reason that Jimmy and I would simply run down to the Belden house on a Saturday rather than phone was because their phone was busy most of the day.
But there was another dimension to the telephone which most of my parents’ close friends were well aware of: the suspicion that the federal government was listening in to their calls.
Both my parents presumed matter of factly that this was the case and always advised us never to say anything we didn’t want overheard by the, presumably, very bored FBI agent on the other end.
Whether or not this was the case I don’t know and my brother Jim never believed it but I did. It’s an unsettling possibility that one is being scrutinised by secret people. Even more unsettling is that the incredibly high price of all this surveillance was being paid for by taxpayers’ dollars.
One family friend of ours, Harry Bridges, rather famously brought phone tapping into the open back in the 1940s to the serious embarrassment of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. In 1941, while staying at a hotel in Manhattan, Harry found that his phone was being tapped by two FBI agents in the next room and called a reporter to come investigate. The reporter prised open the telephone connector box in his room and found a radio induction microphone inside. They then called the police, causing the FBI men to scramble out via the fire escape. The front page news story about it which followed caused an embarrassed Hoover to go to the White House to explain it all to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR apparently was delighted to see Hoover’s discomfort and said with a huge grin: “By god, Edgar, that’s the first time you’ve ever been caught with your pants down.”
If government agents were listening to our phone then I’m sure they would have been highly perplexed by the conversations my brother Jim used to have with Tommy Harper in which they would converse with long wordless noises which would go on forever. It was like something akin to whales communicating with each other. My mother Beth was always highly amused by these telephonic noise sessions. I like to think that the men in the Brooks Brothers suits were frantically scrambling to decode this highly mysterious whalespeak which two eight year olds were indulging in. After all the federal agents had a serious job to do, protecting god fearing Americans from the dangerous Myers family.