Nowadays, people grew up with smartphones and probably never carried around a small address book with all their contacts close by. They’ve probably never had to deal with a coiled phone cord getting tangled while clasping the receiver with their shoulders, nor have they ever had to dial 411 for directory help. Here are just a few aspects of old-school telephony that might baffle the younger generation.
It’s much harder to accidentally leave our telephone “off the hook” today since most people using land lines have cordless phones that had different buttons to start and end your call. But back in the day, receivers had to either hang on their wall phones in the “hook” or be placed on the “cradle” if it was a desk phone; to be disconnected, it was very easy for a line to be left open accidentally. It would happen so often that telephone companies had a particular tone that would alert customers that their phone had been left off the hook.
Party lines were ubiquitous in the first half of the 20th century, especially in rural areas and during the war years when the copper wire was in short supply. A family line was a local telephone loop circuit that was shared by more than one subscriber. There was no privacy on this line, so if you talked with a friend, anyone with this line could pick up their telephone and sneakily listen in. If anyone on this same line was using the phone, no one else could make a call—even in an emergency. Once telephone technology advanced a bit more, call waiting became available, most of the switching equipment required to maintain multi-party lines were rendered obsolete—and personal lines became the standard.
Dialing Plate Number Cards
If you’ve never owned a rotary dial phone, you’ve probably never seen a number card installed in the dial plate center. Touch-Tone phones had a slip of paper at the bottom of the keypad, which enabled anyone who was using the phone to know what number they were calling from immediately.
Large Print Dials
Once they were a common promotional item that served two purposes: one was making the numbers easier to see for those with aging eyes, and the second was keeping the number of your local pizza delivery place (or 24-hour plumber) too close to the phone.
Tapping the Switchhook
Those clicking noises you hear when a rotary dial is released and returns to its starting position were called “hook flashes.” They signaled that the phone company was busy dialing the numbers to make a connection. The disconnect button was called a “switchhook” on the telephone.