It’s been well documented how telephone technology has changed so dramatically since the dawn of the boomer years. Mister B has chronicled many aspects himself over the past decade. However, even though people regularly talk about the fact that boomers grew up in a time before cell phones, there has not been much mention of how, when and why we did use the telephone.
From the time Mister Boomer could remember, his home had one phone, and it was securely fastened to the wall in the kitchen. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, if the phone rang unexpectedly, Mister B’s mother would utter, “Uh-oh,” before answering. Mister B’s mom immediately thought if someone was calling, somebody had died. Coming from a large extended family on both parental sides, as his grandparents’ generation aged, this was often the case. Great aunts and uncles passed away with regularity between 1955 and ’65. It was an era when family lived closer together, and at least in families like Mister Boomer’s, he grew up knowing cousins, aunts, uncles and even second cousins. The phone might be used to form up plans for a visit, but not much else, unless bad news was coming. Even then, it would be to relay funeral arrangements.
Mister Boomer does not recall his father ever making a phone call. His mother would call her mother, but the family saw her practically every Sunday for dinner, so there was not much reason to phone. She’d occasionally call her sister, or one of her brothers, but the calls were generally cordial and quick. As Mister Boomer mentioned, prior to the early 1960s, his home phone was what Bell Telephone called a “party line.” It was literally a line several homes shared, so if you picked up the phone and someone else was on the line, you could not make a call. Mister Boomer’s mother regularly complained about it to his father and ultimately the family got their own line, somewhere in the early 1960s. That new number remained the Boomer household phone number for the next fifty years.
If teenagers were lucky enough to have one the first push-button phones in their bedroom, they might use the phone in much the same way that today’s kids contact friends through social media platforms. Mister Boomer’s sister used the kitchen wall phone on occasion to talk to her friends, but there was always an imposed time limit, not the hours-on-end conversations of teenage boomer girls depicted in movies. Besides, with the phone being in the kitchen, the whole family could hear your conversation. Brother Boomer rarely used the phone, and it was the same for Mister Boomer. If so, it was to arrange something: a ride to school, a meeting time or the like.
When you were out and not where you had told your parents you would be, it was wise to tell your folks that plans had changed, and you were not at Jimmy’s, but went to Kathy’s house to do homework. If you weren’t at someone’s house where you could use the telephone, you would have to use a pay phone. Luckily, they could be found everywhere: most stores had them, as did gas stations, libraries, the roller rink, hamburger joint and malt shop. Also, there were phone booths peppered throughout the city. These were glass and metal, with an accordion door that closed. You could “drop a dime” on your parents, which meant the phone call was ten cents. The younger generations can watch older Superman movies to see him go to phone booths to change from his Clark Kent persona. A weird scenario seeing as the booth was fitted with glass on all sides. There is a scene is a later Superman movie where Clark rushes to a phone booth, only to find it had evolved into an open-air kiosk housing the pay phone. At that point the rotary dial had been replaced by push buttons, as well.
Dating required a telephone, when young men got up enough gumption to ask young ladies for their phone number, but didn’t ask for a date yet. (Remember the Marvelletes singing, “And my number is Beechwood 4-5789 / You can call me up and have a date any old time”?) As in Mister Boomer’s case, the kitchen phone was hardly the location to carry on a conversation, other than setting up times and places. For that reason, Mister B more often than not tried to set up dates from a pay phone.
If the phone rang and you were not home, it rang until the other side gave up. There were no answering machines. If someone called and you were already on the line, the caller would hear a busy signal. In Mister Boomer’s home, if the phone rang while the family was eating dinner, it was left unanswered. The caller would usually give up after ten or twelve rings.
Once a boomer began a job search in earnest, the phone could be vital to getting information on the location and time of the interview. Pay phones were used for such purposes, as well as by business people who had to travel from one location to the next, whether for sales work or regional management. Mister Boomer recalls one of his early retail jobs, where the store pay phone was used to send in daily sales totals to regional headquarters, and in return, a regional manager, who often visited in person, would otherwise relay information via the phone to the store manager to be distributed to staff.
When a call was made out of your area, it was termed “long distance.” The calls could be to a different part of your own state, or across the country. Regardless, these calls could be expensive. That’s where “collect calling” came in. To avoid the charges of long distance, families came up with elaborate codes to give information without actually speaking directly to one another. For example, a soldier returning home might call collect from a bus station several states away. The phone operator — a live person — would ask if the receiving caller — the soldier’s father — would accept the charges from caller “Albee Bus.” The soldier’s father would refuse the charges, saying he didn’t know an “Albee Bus.” At the same time, both the soldier and his father could hear each other. When the operator said the call could not be put through, the soldier might add, “OK, thank you, operator, I guess I’ll try again on Sunday at 2 p.m.” His father could hang up the phone without either side paying long distance charges, knowing his son would arrive at the bus station at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
In short, we see the phone in the boomer years, though used for casual conversation and connectivity among friends and family, was most often a means to communicate needed information that today might be put into a few-word text message.
How about you, boomers? How did you use the telephone in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s?