Rotary Phones: The Struggle Was Real

As people lined up around the country today to be the first to get Apple’s new iPhone 8, it is a good day to pay homage to it’s great grandfather, the rotary phone.  This was the phone of my youth, and young people today should be forced to learn about the struggle of my people: The rotary phone generation.


Here are  things that young people probably should be required to hear our generation whine about:

1.  It hurt a little:   Using your index finger in those 10 circles didn’t feel that great.  You really didn’t like to dial anything above an 8 very often.  My number had three eights and a zero in it, which was probably enough to sway the girl trying to decide if she was going to call me back to pass.  If you were trying to win a radio contest, and had to keep redialing quickly over and over, you might just bleed.  You were definitely going to feel it at school the next day.

2.  You had no privacy:  Most houses had one or two phones in them, both connected to a wall.  Typically in the kitchen and in the parents bedroom.  That meant if you were talking to your friends or trying to get a date, the chances were that a parent or sibling was going to be listening to what you said.  If you had a big call to make to someone you were sweet for, you tried to figure out a time when everyone else would be out of the house.  If not, maybe your best move was to turn up the t.v., and sneak into your mom and dad’s bedroom to make the call.   If you were lucky, your parents might buy a phone with a really long cord so you had some room to maneuver.  The spies in your house were good at acting like they had something to do near the phone, like sweep the kitchen floor so they could listen in.  Additionally, one of your siblings might try to pick up the other line and listen in on your conversation.  There was a whole science to picking up the other fun without getting detected.  It was mortifying, and one of the leading causes of sibling violence in the 70s and 80s.


3.  The Mysteries:  1.  From the answering end, you had no idea who was calling until you picked up.  It might be that cutie from your Spanish class that you told to call you if she needed help, “Conjugating some verbs”, but it also might be your mom calling to see if you had your chores done.  Picking up the phone was a lot like watching the roulette ball bounce….you were seconds away from potentially very happy or very sad.  2.  From the calling end, you had no idea who was going to answer.  I remember conversations that went something like this (a lot),

“Hi is Julie there?”
“Can I tell her who’s calling please?”
“Bob Hammitt”
“Oh………actually she is not here.”

Or worse, it might be a father who would say something like, “Sure, I’ll get her in a second but I wan’t to talk you a bit about my gun collection, or how I survived when I was in jail.”

Today people get to call exactly the person you want, and everyone knows who is going to participate in the conversation before it takes place.  It is not fair.

Also, there was the mystery of whether your message got delivered.  You might get the older brother on the phone who says, “Yeah, I’ll tell her you called.”  After no call back for a day, you’d  try again and get the same result.  Now you were left to wonder, Do I call her back and risk getting the “guy who can’t take a hint” label, or is the brother joining his parents in a vast conspiracy against me.  These days, by leaving a message directly on her phone that doesn’t get returned, you know for sure she doesn’t want to talk to you…….I heard.

4.  It was expensive:  With unlimited minute plans, kids today are used to just calling anyone anywhere at any time.   They have never heard a parent say when you wanted to call someone in a different area code, “Yes, you may call them, but only after 8:00 P.M., or you can wait until Sunday.”  Those were the times when it dropped down to 5 cents a minute instead of ten.  This also meant there was a whole etiquette about taking turns calling your out of town friends, so one person didn’t get stuck with the bill all the time.  In college there had to be huge monthly meeting where roommates had to go through and identify their long distance charges, and whoever was the best at math had to tally up each person’s bill.

Also, there was the “collect call”, where the person receiving the call would be asked if they were willing to pay the charges.  Sometimes, if you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing, or out past curfew, your parent might just refuse to accept the call to teach you a lesson.  Or, a very common occurrence was to deliver information in the name you gave to the operator.  Such as my name is, “Joe comepickmeup.” I remember using the name, “I got rained out.” The operator questioned it’s validity.  I calmly explained to her that I was Native American and how dare she???

4. Sometimes it was hard to find phone you could use.
Very few families had more than one phone line in the house.  That led to the need to learn the pecking order, negotiation skills, and patience.  You might have an older sister talking to her boyfriend for two hours.  You’d  try to implore them that you needed to use the phone only to hear, “Shut up or I’ll tell mom about the National Geographic you stole from the library!” (That was a friend of mine, not me.) Or one of your parents might be waiting on an important call, so no one was allowed to use the phone for hours.

If you were out an about and needed to make a call, finding a pay phone booth might be very difficult. Also, there might be a line using that phone and you would be forced to wait.  You only got three minutes, or you had to pay more.  Everyone old enough remembers the financial hardship caused when the cost of that call was changed from a dime to a quarter.  It was devastating.

Photo credit: New York Daily News

5.  The busy signal and ringing forever.
Not many people had answering machines or call waiting.  You might try calling someone and letting it ring for a few minutes thinking they may be outside or in the bathroom, then wait and try again in a few minutes. This might go on for hours if you really needed to talk to the person.  Or, the person you were calling might already be on the phone so you would just get to hear the annoying buzz of the busy signal.  This too could go on for hours.  Later you might find out the aggravating news that the person was just choosing not to answer their phone, or left it off the hook.  It is not so great for the self confidence to learn that someone was willing to just avoid all phone calls so they wouldn’t have to take one from you.

Phone off the hook
Photo Credit: The Guardian

6.  All you could do with it is call people.
The old phones were just phones.  They couldn’t take pictures, text, access all the information in the world via the internet, play games, play music, record videos, watch movies and sporting events, pay bills, shop, or the other thousands of possible uses available on the phone these days.  I’m not even sure all the young people realize that you can actually still use it to call people.

I suppose it wasn’t all bad. When calling that special someone you had a crush on, you could still chicken out even after they answered the phone.  Today once that number is dialed, you are all in.  Kids today will never know the true joy of looking up your teachers number, disguising your voice, and asking them about the exercise habits of their refrigerator.  Young people  today often miss out on the freedom of being told simply to be home at a certain time, with no real way to be found.  Also, I miss the days of being able to eat in  a restaurant or read a book in a waiting area without having to listen to someone next to you yell into their cell phone as if they were trying to be heard over the sounds of a jackhammer in the background.

We have moved forward, never to go back to that era, but it is okay to look back and smile once in awhile at the struggles of the rotary phone era.


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